Five Sources Of Miscommunication In The Workplace And How To Mitigate Them
Updated: Nov 16
Effective communication is important in any relationship, especially in the workplace where customers and employees depend on it to be successful. When there is a breakdown between individuals, we most often assume that communication is at least part of the root cause solution.
Style inventories, team-building activity programs and communication workshops are commonly used for improving communication. While these are important tools, they aren’t enough to effectively move the needle for ensuring clear and effective communication. Why? Because, they are generally dealing with the symptoms of communication, not the real sources of miscommunication.
There are five sources of interpersonal conflict that I see with organizations over and over again:
1. Unresolved Issues Within The Individual
Everyone has unresolved issues within themselves. This simply means that we’re seeing the world through distorted perception based on our history, our expectations, our emotional trigger points, how we see ourselves, our fears, our need to be “right,” and any other unresolved ego-oriented issues that diminish emotional intelligence.
This isn’t bad; it’s human. It’s just something to be aware of and take responsibility for when we communicate. For example, I observed a manager asking questions to better understand the thought process of her direct report. However, her direct report immediately became defensive, thinking that the manager was using questions to blame and criticize them. You can see how easy it is for misunderstanding to arise, especially if no one is aware of the psychological dynamic at play.
The more we can understand ourselves and what triggers our reactivity, the more we can be aware of and observe ourselves when communicating to make adjustments in our approach or apologize when we don’t catch our reaction in the moment. That same awareness also helps us to be more understanding, compassionate and forgiving when others are triggered to prevent escalation of reactive communication.
2. Environmental Pressures
Environment pressures include things like noise, distractions, stress, interruptions or even being hungry or running on little sleep. These kinds of environmental pressures can easily result in preventing us from being able to attend to or listen to another individual, especially when people are trying to multitask while communicating.
When making a request or wanting to talk about something important, check in with yourself and the other person before you get started to make sure you’re both available for the conversation. If needed, schedule a time to meet instead or move to a quiet room.
3. Misalignment Of Intentions, Roles And Expectations
When we are misaligned on intentions, roles and expectations for each other, interpersonal conflict is almost a given. When working together, a team needs to be clear on what everyone is there to do, what the goals are and what role they are to play to achieve those common goals.
When people come together to work on something, they always bring their own preferences and ways of doing things, their own expectations for how they and others should act and communicate and their ideas about how it’s all going to go. If you don’t get explicitly clear as a team about intentions, roles and expectations, you’re subject to miscommunication and disappointment as things inevitably don’t go the way everyone planned in their head.
Sports teams, music groups and dance companies all choreograph their roles, hand-offs and communication in rehearsal or practice before any live performance. In organizations, we give people different roles and then expect them to show up and smoothly work together as if mind reading actually worked. No amount of communication training can replace the need for effective coordination of roles, expectations and handoffs.
Even in a workplace in which everyone speaks the same language, it can be a huge source of miscommunication. Words and phrases don’t always mean the same thing to the same people, and intonation, as well as body language, add in more opportunities for misunderstanding.
If you start to feel like a miscommunication has occurred, check in with the person you’re talking to and clarify what you mean. This can feel tedious at times, but it saves a lot of conflict down the road, and you’ll learn more about how the other person uses and interprets language that will help you communicate with them more effectively next time.
5. The Reactivity Cycle
All it takes is one person to make an erroneous assumption or to get defensive for the other person to feel misunderstood, “unseen” or feel boxed into a corner. This common human pattern can be physically heard when two people’s conversation gets louder and faster with every retort — like an out-of-control train heading for the cliff just up ahead. Miscommunication builds momentum over time until everyone feels unsafe, mistrusted and like they’re walking on eggshells just to communicate the simplest messages. Reactivity is the norm and hurt feelings are felt daily.
This negative cultural state must be prevented at all costs because it’s so hard to heal and move back to a neutral state of building relationships. If you find yourself in constant reactivity, take a moment to slow down, breathe and consciously make an effort to find common ground with the other person to figure out where you got off track and find a resolution.
While all of the above are sources of miscommunication, addressing the last four examples gives you the most leverage against issues. While we can do our best to understand our own personal psychology and unresolved issues, for example, learning not to react to what triggers us can take years of personal development work and is often a never-ending process.