3 Steps to Avoid a Common Cause of Miscommunication

When my son (we’ll call him Speedy) was 4, my husband, Jon, took him to the Oakland Zoo. It was supposed to be a nice father/son-bonding day. But, due to a common miscommunication, which occurs when questions are answered, it was traumatizing for both.

After gawking at the various animals, they went to the area with the carnival rides to get lunch (lunch out being a special treat in our family). While there, Speedy pointed to the now infamous tiger rollercoaster and asked Jon, “what’s that!?”

Jon replied, “Oh, the roller coaster? You have to go on that before you eat lunch.”

Speedy, who is generally rather compliant, mumbled, “ok.” They went on the rollercoaster. After the rollercoaster, Jon bought Speedy the promised lunch.

And the story ended there. Until many years later when Speedy told us how absolutely terrified he was to go on that roller coaster. When he announced this one night at dinner, Jon was taken aback, “then why did you want to go on it?” Speedy seemed a bit confused when he answered, “You told me if I wanted lunch, I had to go on the rollercoaster.”

At this, Jon’s face went white. “Oh, no!” he cried, “I thought you wanted to go on it. I only meant that if you wanted to ride the rollercoaster, you had to do so before you ate. I didn’t mean you had to go on it. In fact, I really didn’t want you to, but thought I should let you if you were interested.”

Learning this, Speedy cracked up. And a family story was born; to be retold with humor and laughter over and over.

Speedy loves to tell this story. While Speedy basks in the attention of his audience, Jon and I cringe with parental guilt. Speedy was accidentally forced to do something which terrified him at the hands of the very person whose job it is to protect him: his father. And it all comes down to a mistake most people make when answering another’s question.

In most communication, we respond to another based on what we think they are saying. This becomes uniquely problematic when responding to questions. This often happens for two reasons; 1) People’s questions do not offer all the information necessary for us to answer them accurately and 2) We subconsciously fill in the details of what we think they mean. It is much more challenging to respond to only and exactly the phrase the other offers. It is even more challenging to ask for clarification or more detail, especially since we are often unaware of how we create a reason or motivation for the other’s question.

Very often, miscommunication in simple conversations can lead to unnecessary tension in a workplace. As in all situations, this could have been avoided had Jon answered only and exactly what Speedy asked. In a workplace, this is crucial. All too often, we assign more meaning to statements than they deserve. A simple query as to the location of a file might be heard as, “have you finished this yet?!” A question about timing could be interpreted as an accusation of someone not working hard or long enough.

To avoid these potential landmines, follow these 3 simple steps:

  1. Answer only and exactly what is being asked.
  2. If you sense there is more to the question or statement, ask in a nonjudgmental way for clarity.
  3. Be aware of your own emotions. We often respond defensively to innocent questions because we are already feeling anxious, embarrassed, or underappreciated. Allowing these emotions to leak out into simple conversations can cause tension.

The most effective way to avoid simple conversations turning into moments of conflict or tension is to create a culture of effective communication in the workplace. If one simple question can cause resentment between two employees, just imagine how disastrous larger miscommunications can be to your bottom line.

Berlin Consulting, LLC offers workplace coaching which develops a culture of ongoing clear communication. Andi Berlin is a highly regarded speaker and teacher. Please contact her to discuss how her inspirational talks and classes can set a foundation for healthy communication in your organization.

Oh, and at Camp Kefli this year, Speedy went on a roller coaster for the first time since the “zoo incident.” He loved it.

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