top of page

Avoid These Hurdles If You Want Clear Communication

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? 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