How to Avoid Misunderstandings

In a study of 400 companies, employee assessment firm Cognisco estimated that misunderstandings between workers and managers cost firms $37 billion a year. On average, businesses with 100,000 employees lose a staggering $62 million a year through misunderstandings, at an average cost of $624 per employee. This figure excluded reputational costs such as reduced customer satisfaction and the impact on brand value.

Thankfully, confusion can sometimes turn into a delightful accident. One of my favourites was the notice in The London Observer which read:

‘In the Review section’s special summer reading issue of 2 July we wrongly ascribed a reading list to Roddy Doyle, the celebrated Irish author. Unfortunately, owing to a misunderstanding, the ‘Roddy Doyle’ we spoke to, and who gave us a very interesting selection of summer reading, was a computer engineer from north London’.

Then there was the case of the local council official in Swansea (Wales) who ordered the following road sign.

Road sign

But the Welsh half of the sign makes no reference to heavy good vehicles. Instead it reads, ‘I am not in the office at the moment. Send any work to be translated’.

What went wrong? It turned out that a council official – who didn’t speak Welsh – emailed through the English words to the translation department and received an automated email in response. Thinking it was a translation, it was passed directly on to the sign makers. For the full article, see here

For more information on why understandings like this happen, see this section in The Science of Conversation on inferences. The fact is that many of our misunderstandings are the product of our brilliant but sometimes flawed ability to infer what someone means.

How can you increase the odds of clear communication?

1. Check for understanding while clarifying your own.

Even if you think you’ve been clear in your communication with someone else, check that they’ve understood you. The same principle applies in reverse. Your understanding of what someone’s said to you may not match what they actually said or meant. Checking for understanding – as you go along – is basic good practice when it comes to conversation.

One of the most celebrated misunderstandings of recent times was John Travolta’s introduction of Adina Menzel at the Oscars. It just goes to show that preparation is everything.

See this:

George Bush managed to give rise to a new term called a ‘Bush-ism’, on account of the frequency with which he got in The Tangle.

Have a look at this:

2. Check for accountability and action.

However convivial, energizing or inspiring a meeting is, it won’t drive things forward unless it involves clear conversations to generate and establish action. Three things need to be agreed to do this: exactly what will be delivered, by whom and by when. If any one of these is omitted, the chances of the action being delivered as expected are drastically reduced. Practise this consistently and you’ll see productivity increase. It’s a small change that makes a big difference. While some conversations can be loose and broad, others need to be sharp as a knife.

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