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Communication and Misinterpretation in the Workplace

Posted by sean
Published on 11 December 2019


All communication has at least two participants: a sender and a receiver. The sender has a message he or she intends to transmit, and the message is (usually) put into words which, to the sender, best reflects what they're thinking. You could argue that the same reasoning applies to a play, a painting or a piece of music – anything in fact that tries to tell us something.

In business, our focus here, but socially too, many things can intervene to prevent the intended message's delivery. 

If the communication is verbal, then the tone of voice, body language, facial expressions, vocabulary, sarcasm, use of power or position, appearance, and phraseology - all can be interpreted as an attack even if not so intended. Or the other way around, of course. Each of these elements can be interpreted as intended or unintended, particularly if the cues lead the receiver to feel (rightly or wrongly) that any element is in fact an attack or criticism, however mild. Misinterpretation in life is rife, and we experience it every day.

All new information we receive or learn is compared automatically with the knowledge and beliefs we already hold. If the new information confirms what we already know, we will likely receive it comfortably and accurately. Most of the time, we may pay little attention to it. If it disputes our previous interpretations of similar situations or if the information is at odds with our beliefs, then we may distort what we hear, see or read in our mind so that it is made to fit in with our particular worldview. If it doesn’t fit, we may dismiss the information as deceptive, misguided or simply wrong.

That, of course, doesn’t help much in establishing the best way to manage interpretation of anything – music, TV, a book, an email, a play, a painting, instructions and so on. This is all set within the world of mindset.

We each have a mindset established from a mix of upbringing, health, income, social strata, education, family, influences, politics, media, confidence, religion, values, morals, respect for authority, experiences and so on. If anything, we receive a ‘message’ that doesn’t match our mindset, and then we often have difficulties in accepting or understanding it. We misinterpret it deliberately or not. We may dismiss it because it doesn’t ‘fit’ in with our beliefs. Sometimes we might interpret it to suit our purpose - or to make us or another person feel more comfortable.

So, if a message is ambiguous, the receiver is likely to clarify it for him/herself in a way that corresponds with his/her expectations. Another way of looking at this is that we tend to understand what we have experienced previously. For example, if two people are involved in an escalated conflict and they each assume that the other is going to be aggressive and hostile, then any ambiguous message will be interpreted as aggressive and hostile, even if it’s not intended that way. That happens particularly in phone conversations where there are no visual aids to help us be less prone to misinterpretation.

Our expectations work as filters that distort what we hear or see so that those expectations (and the offered information) fit our preconceived image of the world. 

If we see, hear, or read something that doesn’t suit our preconceptions or beliefs, we are highly likely not to accept or believe it. So, given our tendency to interpret what we hear or read in a way that suits us, it’s easy for us to misunderstand - or refuse to accept - others. Communication is already flawed because we use it poorly and we tend to ignore truths or cover up what we feel we don’t properly understand. Sometimes we refuse to accept someone else’s viewpoint and dismiss it because it doesn’t fit with our own no matter what argument is put our way. The Flat Earth Society has millions of followers.

Why is misinterpretation so common in the workplace? Mostly through lack of context, i.e. things said or written which have no relevance to anything that the receiver understands or has experienced. Further, as intimated, it can be because texts, e-mails and phone conversations lack a person’s visual reaction to what we’ve said or what is said to us. Not seeing someone face-to-face can affect how we receive information. It’s easier to get angry on Twitter, text, or phone calls. It’s easier still if the receiver doesn’t know from where the communication came which is why some tweets are vile.

The simplest of things can be misinterpreted all of the time. For instance, does the use of an exclamation mark in a text message: ‘I didn’t know that!’ indicates that the writer is excited, surprised, or angry? Does the phrase ‘I need this today’ mean literally today - or is it merely advice that the request is important, or could it possibly be light-hearted?

There’s also the added issue that people write emails and texts quickly without checking before sending them. There lies the confusion. Emails are often convoluted and incoherent, often with no context or relationship with context. Often this is compounded by the plethora of cc’s and bcc’s where recipients simply become confused, and the field of misinterpretation is wider still.

Texts and tweets are written without much thought. Texting tends to be fast. Ditto messaging via Twitter. People write in abbreviations, and language can be direct and hurtful, sometimes even with no intent to cause harm. But, once the damage is done, the result becomes a relationship breach. That’s damaging. This may not matter between close friends, but it might, and it does matter in a business context.

In business, using more than one medium is helpful, particularly if you don’t know the other party well. So, for example, if you have a phone conversation about possible delays in a project, a follow-up e-mail to minimise any possible misunderstanding is a good plan.

But remember that sloppy e-mails require the receiver to waste time trying to decipher them, and they nearly always cause some misinterpretation, offence and resultant error. For offenders who claim they simply don’t have time to write better emails (and that, according to research, is 90% of people), it's simply unprofessional. We must find the time; otherwise, we’re not fit for the job we do and somebody else should be doing it. There’s no excuse for sending people cryptic, misleading or poor-quality emails. Misinterpretation feeds on such things.

Some people (to be congratulated) believe that every organisation should insist on tuition for all staff (no matter how junior or senior) in the construction of viable emails. That would save money, time and huge effort. It would solve many interpretation issues at a stroke.

We often think that others are more in sync with what we think than they are. Or we can’t be bothered to check if they are. The obvious fix for this illusion is greater empathy and more understanding. Put yourself in the position of the other person.

It’s less easy in a meeting or via online video conferencing. Even so, we tend to ignore or, better put, misinterpret most signs most of the time that would otherwise give some indication as to meaning or intent. Often, we misinterpret body language, say, because we choose to. It makes life easier, or we don’t wish to cause any awkwardness. We can misinterpret because of a lack of interpersonal skills, a lack of experience, a lack of knowledge of a particular subject or a general lack of awareness.

The visual element is something many of us tend to ignore. Does it matter? Well, since virtual teams, for example, might lack the necessary context for empathy, some business managers encourage people to share information about themselves, perhaps on an intranet site or at team meetings. Many successful companies insist that virtual team members give a smartphone video tour of their offices or workspaces to provide a mental image for others when communicating through e-mail, phone or texting.

We all tend to prefer a certain language for communication at work. Some people are more quantitative (preferring raw numerical data), while others are more visual (favouring analogies, metaphors, images, pie charts and bar graphs). For yet others, storytelling and anecdotes are best. Good managers encourage teams to express such preferences at the start of any virtual project.   Knowing communication style and team members’ character limits misinterpreting someone’s curt e-mail as an annoyance, straightforward advice, or a request.

We often communicate less information than we think, a syndrome psychologists call signal amplification bias. Anyone lacking contextual cues that the other person hasn’t understood what we’re trying to say often hears only too late that, ‘I thought it was obvious …’ or, ‘I didn’t think I needed to spell that out.’ Even people who know each other well, like married partners, assume understanding based on experience or pre-set knowledge. But sometimes. they make assumptions because they don’t understand the terminology, the language of the instruction or the way a request is posited.

The solution here is to spell things out. Don’t just say, ‘Come back to me with any problems.’ Do you want problems on your desk? Will you help if there are any? Do you think the employee will deem asking for help an admission of failure? Do you want final input or just want to be informed of the decision after it’s been made? Be precise, be clear, and give thought to how your words are being received. Know your people. If you don’t know someone, then be as precise in all of your communications as possible. If in any doubt, check understanding.

In the past, Oxford University used to pose questions to prospective students at interviews. ‘Please sit down,' was one instruction used when there were no spare chairs in the room. It was a device to see what an erstwhile student might do. Not particularly clever, and nobody’s sure if the outcome created better students. But the point here is that it shows that context is always important. If you try and describe peeling an orange to someone who doesn’t understand the concept of peeling or has never seen an orange, then to avoid misinterpretation, simpler language, concept detail, and reinforcement are key.

When Marshall McLuhan coined the phrase, ‘The medium is the message’ in 1964, few then could have imagined today’s variety of communications channels. He meant that ‘the medium of language extends our thoughts from our mind out to others.’ Clear language equals a clear message. A communication vehicle that works is only good if it’s used well.

Consider this example. An executive overhears a rumour at a conference and texts that information to someone on his staff. Later that day, he’s baffled to learn that his entire team has been scrambling all morning to confirm the rumour (which has now been magnified by at least 50% as is the case with rumour), something he had merely passed along as idle industry gossip. The lesson here is that certain media (like texting) implies urgency, so be mindful and don’t let the medium colour your message. Water cooler conversations or any hastily written version of them can be dangerous.

Urgency in communications is interesting. A person’s response time can matter as much as the medium used. In general, people will interpret the promptness of a response to an email or voice message as an indication of the quality of a relationship. When a reply is tardy (and this is subjective i.e. ten minutes can be regarded as late), the other party is left wondering whether that relationship is valued or not. Of course, a slow response simply means the receiver is busy, watching a film, asleep, overworked, lazy, or didn’t understand the message. Limited contextual clues like response time tend to take on greater significance.

It’s worth encouraging everyone to expect misinterpretation problems. At the start of a project, it’s recommended that meta-communication (big plan) of basic guidelines be implemented, such as how quickly people should respond to emails and what media should be used for which purpose. Style should be discussed and clarified and who should and should not be cc’d or bcc’d into which communications.

A major component of meta-communication should be a mechanism for resolving communication difficulties. Setting the expectation that there will inevitably be interpretative problems and that it’s perfectly fine to have some, provided that most are dealt with well, makes everyone far less hesitant to raise an issue. Talking about a colleague’s style of communication within the safety of a structured format will open floods of issues which will hopefully then reduce to a trickle.

Generally speaking, in business, people don’t complain about interpretation because they don’t want to appear stupid or make assumptions. Knowing that interpretation and misinterpretation are issues will make interpretation more likely to be right rather than not.

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