That’s not what I meant!
Oh, if only we never had to say that – at work or at home!
But alas, we do. Misunderstandings happen.
Here are three of the most common misunderstandings that happen at work along with my advice on how to deal with them.
1) Misattribution of motives. This is when we guess wrong about why someone did something. The human brain is a sense-making machine and it wants to know why someone did (or didn’t do) something. In the absence of information, we make up a motive and we are usually wrong.
The best way to mitigate against this is to stop and check in with yourself when you think someone has intentionally wronged you. Ask yourself how much hard evidence you have to support your conclusion that the other person has acted maliciously. If you don’t have much (or any!) evidence, get curious and ask the person some questions about why they did what they did (or didn’t do). Assume positive intent until you have hard evidence to the contrary.
2) Misunderstandings on email. We regularly misunderstand one another over email because we have limited social cues (i.e., no tone of voice, eye contact, facial expression) to aid our comprehension of the message. When email misunderstandings occur, people feel threatened and get defensive. That often shows up as CCing others on the reply to the email as a form of vindication and proof that the sender of the email was wrong.
To avoid this misunderstanding I suggest following the rule of three: if there have been three emails exchanged and you haven’t understood each other, pick up the phone and speak to them in person. Another tip is when you are feeling angry or frustrated with someone and are tempted to CC someone on the exchange, check to see if there is a misunderstanding first.
3) Assuming agreement. Naturally, we want others to agree with us. In our current culture of too much to do and not enough time to do it, we often jump to conclusions that others agree with us, when in fact, we haven’t asked enough questions and engaged them effectively to find out if they agree or not.
To avoid jumping to a conclusion that you have reached agreement, state your objective (i.e., the need to reach a decision together) at the outset of the conversation. Then conclude the interaction with restating the conclusion or agreement as a comprehension check.
What other misunderstandings do you experience at work?
Post them in the comments below and I’ll give my best advice on how to address them.