5 Ways to Avoid Miss Communication

Mouth by Chris Chabot is  licensed under CC by 2.0 


5 Ways to Avoid Miss Communication

A couple days ago, I received a book in the mail from Amazon, but it wasn’t the book I ordered. This mistake could be the product of many factors, but this event got me thinking about communication. Specifically, how valuable is communication? According to an article by Mark W. Sheffert of Manchester Companies, “it is estimated that miscommunication can cost an organization between 25 percent and 40 percent of its annual budget.” That’s how big communication is to you and your company.

Looking beyond common visible displays of miscommunication: Starbucks not spelling your name right, a restaurant mixing up your order, or a retail company sending you the wrong product, clear communication is the most important factor in our day to day life. For example, employee error miscommunication has caused me to lose entire days of work (this includes group work on a project to a miscommunication in recording inventory in retail). In our interpersonal relationships, the wrong word said at the wrong time can cause days of frustration--and this is why communication is the leading cause of divorce. Not only is clear communication part of every aspect of our lives, doing it well is necessary for our success.

In this blog post, I have compiled a list of tips to keep in mind when engaging in any conversation. I composed the list based on areas I have seen the most people misconnect in my work experience and interpersonal relationships. Not only will following these tips help you to be able to speak more clearly, but these ideas will challenge you to become a better listener--an often overlooked factor in good communication. Additionally, communication skills are a key factor in growing your EQ/emotional intelligence: the newest factor in the workplace that is more highly valued than IQ. Let’s begin!


1. Give the Speaker Your Full Attention

Instead of waiting for your turn to speak, listen to what the person is saying completely before you even plan to respond. It’s easy to miss important details in a conversation if we are thinking about what we are going to say next instead of tuning in to what the person is saying. Giving the speaker your full attention does a few things:

A) It gives necessary validation because most people want to be heard first. Once they sense there is some common ground, they will feel more comfortable.

B) You do not run the risk of cutting the person’s delivery short. Often, stopping someone mid-thought causes as much confusion as interrupting the speaker mid-sentence.  

C) By giving the person you are communicating with your full attention, you are able to listen to exactly what they have to say (when was the last time you gave anything your full attention?). And in doing so, you can respond with a more clear and precise answer.

D) If you do not listen first, you might only be responding to what you think or assume they are trying to say. By listening to their words and ideas, you can ensure that you are communicating with people, not just to them.


2. Grow Empathy With Active Listening

Active listening is important because with the more questions you ask, the more clearly you will be able to see the picture in the other person’s mind. The first step to active listening is to validate what the person is saying and feeling. This can be hard at times because you may be confused by  inconsistencies in how someone is acting or feeling. For example, you may be talking with somebody and they are visibly upset. You think, this person has no reason to be upset, they need to develop better coping skills, this is going to slow us down today. Although you cannot see what is driving this person to be upset, you should still validate them by recognizing that something is bothering them. Emotions are real, and they affect how a person views the world. Quite possibly there is something going on that you don’t know about. Something I try to keep in the back of my mind is that every person I am talking to is dealing with something beneath the surface that I cannot see. You shouldn’t think of this as “giving someone a break”: what it really is, is acknowledging that we are all human and we live complex lives filled with roller coasters of daily experiences. If someone is upset, there is--in their mind--a valid reason. By keeping this in your mind, you will grow your ability to empathize with others.


3. Watch Your “Yes...butting”

If you have read Malcolm Gladwell, you may already be familiar with John Gottman. In Gladwell’s book Blink, he writes about Gottman’s “Love Lab” at the University of Washington where Gottman studied communication in relationships. Gottman and his researchers got so good, they were able to predict (with 90% accuracy) if a marriage would last or end in divorce, just by watching 15 minutes of a conversational exchange.

Gottman called the patterns he found in destructive relationships, “the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse”. And this is when the yes...but became a popular phrase to study in interpersonal communication. The Yes-but is when you start a sentence agreeing but end up disagreeing. These messages are confusing because they seem to say one thing, but really say something else. It is sometimes hard to pick up on unless you are listening carefully. The following are some examples in and out of a business context to magnify the disconnect.

Example 1: You are at home with a good friend and getting ready to go out for dinner. You change into a new outfit and say, “Okay, I’m all ready to go. Do you like my outfit?  I just got it last weekend.” Your friend looks at you and says, “Yes. Wow. That is a great outfit. But are you sure you want to wear it tonight?”

Here is an example you probably heard today at the office.

Example 2:  “I hear you. It's an excellent idea, but I don't think it is going to work here.”

Unfortunately, a yes...but often translates to: “I know you think you have come up with a great idea, but it really isn't worth much.”

Instead of using a “yes...but”, be sure that you are always clear with your messages. If you are worried about hurting somebody’s feelings, make sure your critique is only on their idea and not on who they are as an individual. If you did a good job implementing the strategies in the first two tips, this person should already know that you are not critiquing them as an individual, but rather, your criticism is helping you both see the problem more clearly.


4. Don’t Take Anything Personally

When it comes to communication, Don’t Take Anything Personally is the most important agreement in Don Miguel Ruiz’s book, The Four Agreements. According to Ruiz:

“Even when a situation seems so personal, even if others insult you directly, it has nothing to do with you. What they say, what they do, and the opinions they give are according to the agreements they have in their own minds. Their point of view comes from all the programming they received during domestication. … You eat all their emotional garbage, and now it becomes your garbage. But if you do not take it personally, you are immune in the middle of hell.”

Often, when someone is angry, this angers gets projected onto how they view their job, relationships, and other people--this includes you. It is only after someone is tired and has walked away from their anger when the person realizes that all along they were wrestling with themselves. Unfortunately, in this process, people can inadvertently hurt others by holding onto negative comments the person might have said. Part of empathy is realizing that when somebody is very excited or very sad, what they are saying when they are caught up in the moment is influenced by their mood.


5. The Respect Issue: Breaking the Cycle of Negativity

Moods are contagious and being around somebody who is negative can often be claustrophobic.   

Instead of responding to someone’s negativity with your own negativity, break the cycle. To echo what I said in point #2, everyone is dealing with something beneath the surface we cannot see. Just think: the person you like the least is probably suffering the most, and the last thing they need in their life is more conflict.

If this is too hard for you, think about it this way: we should treat others with respect because of the respect we have for ourselves, not that person. Let me say that again: we should treat others with respect simply because we respect ourselves. That’s it. If we disrespect others and let our egos get in the way, we also absorb that disrespect back into ourselves.

Remember that your mood is contagious, too. If you remain positive by giving the speaker your full attention, validate them, are clear with your communication, and don’t take anything personally, your mood will be just as contagious.


I am happy I get a chance to write about this topic. These are skills I am constantly working on (just like my last post about learning names). Writing about these topics, I am able to reinforce the positive habits I know, but are not yet in my muscle memory. Each time we practice a skill, it becomes easier and more automatic. This week, I made a point of actively using these tips in my conversations, and each day I find myself falling into these habits more naturally. Day by day, it’s getting easier and easier for me to be a confident and empathetic person.


More than luck, friends!


Andrew J. Wilt

SEI Analyst

Apprenticeship Program