Photo by Christina @ on Unsplash

Want to communicate better at work? Avoid this common mistake

Don’t assume people have the same information as you!

Have you ever watched a movie, maybe a romantic comedy, where the main character gets angry at their love interest and the love interest has no idea what they did wrong? 

When we watch this movie, everyone is thinking “Why doesn’t he just tell her what happened!!!”

This happens in movies for two main reasons. First, movies need drama and if every Hollywood character communicated better, the movie would be a lot shorter. 

Second, because the main character assumed the other person knew what they knew.

In the real world

Although our lives are not movies, miscommunications like this happen all the time. Instead of explaining things in a clear and direct way, we assume everyone has the same information.

If we think about small talk, this could mean assuming that everyone has read the latest important news story or that everyone has seen Game of Thrones. 

From a language perspective, this often means assuming everyone knows common jargon that comes from our own field of expertise. For example, someone working in business development may assume everyone knows what CRM or CPC mean. 

When working in a team, we often assume that everyone knows the most recent updates to a project. Sometimes, everyone on the team should be up to date. But in today’s fast-paced world, people can fall behind on the most recent activity. 

The problem with assuming

At the same time, we often find it difficult to ask for clarity if we are not sure about something. 

Because the other person assumes we have the same information, we assume that we should have that information as well. We are afraid of appearing unprofessional if we don’t know what the other person is talking about. 

We find it easier to smile and nod than to ask for clarification.

From the other side, we are afraid to appear as if we do not trust the other person if we over-explain something. We are afraid of making the other person feel unprofessional if we explain something that they already know. 

Photo by Christina @ on Unsplash

An avoidable problem

Fortunately, there are several ways to fix this common issue and a few small changes to our speaking habits will lead to fewer miscommunications at work and in life.

The first and easiest thing to do is to ask the other person (or group) if they have any questions. Better yet, invite the other person to ask questions.

Imagine you are in a team meeting and your boss just explained a list of tasks for you to do. If she ends the explanation with a phrase like “sound good?” or “got it?” The natural answer is “sure” or “of course.” This type of “question” does not leave a lot of space for clarification.

Now imagine that your boss says to everyone at the end of the meeting, “I’ll take your questions now,” or asks “Does anyone have any questions about the next steps?”

Leaving an open-ended question at the end of a complicated or long explanation is important for clear communication. Most importantly, you want to ask in a way that does not imply judgement. If people feel safe to ask questions, they will.

A simple question can go a long way.

Secondly, remember who you are talking to.

If you are speaking with people from your team, they are most likely familiar with the same vocabulary as you. You can safely use common jargon and abbreviations. 

If you are speaking with a client or a colleague from a different area. Think about the vocabulary you use that might not be obvious to them and try to be as clear as possible. 

For example, if you work in customer service and are talking to a teammate about “our CRM software,” that’s okay. But if a product designer comes to you with a question, be prepared to talk about “the software we use to manage customer relations” instead. 

Finally, don’t judge someone if you do need to explain something in more detail. 

Building strong communication happens over time. If you ask someone, “can you please tell me a little more about that?” and they respond with obvious frustration that you don’t already know, you probably will not ask them to clarify the next time. 

You have a responsibility to explain things with patience and without judgement.

Being open and aware of things that may not be obvious will help you create good relationships with coworkers and clients. 

Avoid phrases like “Oh, I thought you knew that already” or worse, “you should really know what we are talking about here.”

Look at the person who asked the question and explain in more detail without judgement. You might consider saying “Thank you for asking” or “I’d be happy to talk about that more.”

This will create a long-term trusting relationship where everyone can grow.

Miscommunications happen a lot, but just by being more aware and conscious you can significantly improve the way you communicate. 

Building skills like this to become a better communicator translates into stronger relationships and more trust from your teammates and bosses. 

Next time you are in a meeting or conversation, don’t assume people know everything that you do. Be patient and kind when explaining as clearly as possible and welcome questions whenever possible. 

This will help you be a stronger communicator and advance in your career.