Last week I was in a very quick and somewhat heated argument in a Whatsapp group chat. A close friend "accused" me of perpetrating something that I did not do. Not only that, it was an "accusation" that touched a raw nerve within my psyche simply because I would never stoop to doing such a thing, and it questions the very leadership essence that I hold near and dear. Not unexpectedly, I flew into a rage and within a couple of sharp exchanges, I exited from the chat, and deleted that group. As it turned out, and which was later explained to me by my Co-Founder who was also in the group (but had no opportunity to respond during my brief tirade), that it was all a misunderstanding. Apparently, my friend did not mean what the word meant, and unfortunately, was not given the opportunity to explain. That explanation was instead given to my Co-Founder, who, a couple of days later, explained the whole situation to me. As it turned out, my friend was facing a stressful situation at home, and this conversation popped up at that wrong time. The chosen word was admittedly wrong, but the intent was not what that word conveyed. However, seeing that the "damage" had already been done, I won't be returning to that chat group. While I am sure this would not impact the friendship - I believe it is much stronger than a few misplaced words - this episode got me thinking about the way we speak to people and how we choose our words. It got me looking at the impact of miscommunication at the workplace and how a misplaced word, a misunderstood gesture, may lead to countless hours of unproductive abrasions. As a leader, we should be well aware of how we say things, and how they are understood. So in this article, I identify 5 major pitfalls that can impact our ability to remain steadfast in our communication, and what we can do to avoid them...
PS: There are many other pitfalls including culture, emotion, assumptions, jargon, generation gap. But we focus on these five that typically impact leadership communication.
1. Using words that you don't fully understand
English is not the mother-tongue for many people here in Singapore, and this may give rise to misunderstanding when we use a word that connotes a different meaning than what we actually intended. Take for example the word "quite". To a native speaker, "quite" means "very". However to many, "quite" means "somewhat". So, if a person were to ask a leader, "Do you like the proposal that I recommended in the meeting this morning?" and the leader's response was "Quite", the person may be offended and ask, "What areas were you dissatisfied with?" leaving the leader flummoxed (confused) because he liked it very much. This might also now cause the leader to think that the person might not be altogether that brilliant after all.
The converse can also be true. The word "oxymoron" is used to describe a contradictory phrase. For example, the sentence "He is truthfully untruthful" is an oxymoron because "truthfully" and "untruthful" are contradictory terms. Yet, the term "oxymoron" sounds more like describing a person than a phrase. So when you call someone an oxymoron, you might well be that moron. Hence, use the right words.Don't use fancy ones, when a simple word will do. Make sure that the word you use is well known, well defined, and well understood.
However, it is difficult to uncover your own vocabulary misunderstandings because you genuinely believe that the word you used was correct. The best way to overcome this is by explaining yourself. Don't say things only once, but use several angles to describe your true intent, so that if there was a misunderstanding, it can surface immediately, allowing your listener to clarify. For example, if you misunderstood "responsive" to mean "responsible", and you say something like, "I want all of you to be responsive for the results. I will hold all of you accountable for the budget you requested," one can immediately see the misunderstanding, and clarify the matter.
By the way, when someone clarifies, don't take it to heart. They are not trying to belittle you; they are only trying to get at the clear understanding of what you meant. When you use words that have a different meaning from what you had intended, these can trip up a good relationship, and cause undue misunderstanding and possible operational downtime. So allow people to clarify, ensure that they completely understand you, even at the expense of admitting that you used the wrong word. It is better to have your ego bruised than your business battered.
2. Using words that have multiple meaning
These are called equivocal words. These are dangerous because they can be taken in different perspectives, and all perspectives are right from that point of view. You open yourself up to a lot of misunderstanding and even distrust, when you use equivocal words. For example, the word "Okay" has many layers of meaning. It is quite (and I mean "very" here!) frustrating when someone answers you with an "okay" in their response because you cannot really capture their true intentions. So if your direct report asked you, "Shall I take the report and circulate it to the other meeting members?" and you answered, "It's okay..." what does that mean? Does it mean, "It's okay, you don't have to do it, I shall do it myself." Or does it mean, "Okay, you do just that." Or does it mean, "It is okay to circulate the report," without ascribing responsibility? Notice...one word with three possible meanings. How can one work with such ambiguity? The business environment is ambiguous enough without you making it even more so by your equivocal responses.
As a good leader, therefore, you must avoid using words with more than one meaning, sticking to the plain and simple ones. And always ask for clarifications from your listener, making sure that the person(s) understand without a shadow of a doubt, what you mean and what your intentions are.
3. Throwing big words around
As leaders, we tend to speak with authority. Some of this authority comes from position, some of it comes from education, while others come from experience. Such authority may sometimes prompt us to use inappropriately large words to portray a sense of wonderment in our listeners. "Wow! He is so elegant in his prose!" - that is what some leaders think their followers are saying about them. However, in reality, they may be saying. "What the #*?! did he just say?" And our Asian culture is such that we don't question the leader at all, so we take what was said, hoping to ask our compatriots later what was really communicated, only to find out that everyone had no idea of what was mentioned. And so, they simply continue down the same path, knowing that if that path was wrong, the leader will hightlight that later on. This will then give rise to a lot of tension, and accusations of wilful disobedience, or worse, sabotage, when it was all a matter of using inappropriately large words. Don't speak to obfuscate (is this an unusually large word? Okay, then let's use "confuse"), speak to clarify. Never use a large word, when a small one will do. Leave the "brilliant bedazzlement" to people who don't really matter.
4. Ignoring context
One of the biggest causes of miscommunication in today's wired world is ignoring context. Context is the background environment within which the comments were made. Going back to my personal story earlier, the context was that my friend was having a particularly difficult day when the group chat was initiated. Then, in the heat of the situation, a word was uttered wrongly, and instead of clarifying, I flew into a rage. It can happen. If I had known the context, if I had clarified what caused my friend to say what was said, I might have avoided the unpleasantness. This is what happens when someone ignores the context and takes things at face value. And in a wired world, where emails and text messages are shot back and forth,devoid of non-verbal communication which some experts say comprise 55% of all communication content, there is a tendency of misreading the content, and therefore, misunderstanding the meaning. As a leader, we must therefore take the time to explain the background, to manage interfering noise so as to insulate true context from externalities, and to be mindful that others see things, understand things, differently from us. We must therefore always stop and understand the context within which all forms of communication work. Getting that wrong can also lead to miscommunication, sometimes with painful outcomes.
5. Not listening or listening only to respond
The rules of communication are simple - someone talks, someone listens. It cannot be that two people talk, and no one listens. It also cannot be that two people listen, but no one is talking. Most communication transgressions come when we prefer to talk more than we listen. We want others to hear us, but many of us seldom want to hear them. Not listening to the other party basically kills communication. After all, it has already violated the rules of communication, and so, by definition, no communication has taken place. However, there are also varying degrees of listening. Some people listen only to respond, while others listen to understand. A good leader will do the latter. And how do we listen?
Take a look at the traditional Chinese character for listening...
Without going too deeply into it, there are two sides of the character. The left side says that the "ear is king". But to listen requires more than the ears. The top half of the right side says "10 eyes" and the bottom half says "1 heart". Hence, to listen effectively, while the ear is king, you need eye contact, and an attentive and empathetic heart. This means you have to give your undivided attention to the speaker while the person is speaking. You must be present for the person, as the person must be present for you. As Stephen Covey mentioned in his seven habits, you must first listen to understand, before you seek to be understood.
5.5 Thinking that they are right
I leave you with one additional pitfall... thinking that you are right. Many people, leaders included, have an arrogant streak and think that they are right when they may in fact be wrong. This is again the work of perspectives; but when one person stubbornly holds onto the wrong one, and insists that he is right, communication not only stops, it may even regress. This impacts trust, and when that is eroded, it takes an inordinate amount of effort to rebuild it. I now believe that the altercation with my friend is not my friend's fault, it was mine. Because I hung on a perspective that made me arrogant in the way I saw things, and not about what was being said. I have more blame in this altercation than my friend. And I apologise. And this is how we need to act when we finally find ourselves on the wrong end of a miscommunication. Leaders must be the first to admit they are wrong when it is brought to their attention; they must NEVER try to justify. It will only lead them deeper and deeper into a hole, and that seals the fate on him. Trust is so difficult to come by; it takes a lot to build it, but so little to destroy it. Don't always think you are right - seek perhaps to see how you can be wrong!
The biggest job of a leader
Leaders are there to rally people together and to get the collective job done. So while planning, strategising, productising, monetising are all important functions that leaders do, their biggest job is to marshall everyone together to deliver on those plans. Communication is paramount in this case, and leaders must know how to align people, empower action and maintain conviction with the right words.There is no bigger job for a leader than to ensure that there is smooth and unquivocal communication throughout the organisation. We hope this article is helpful.
Here's to your success!