Resolving Miscommunication

Written by Jessica Hartung, CEO of Integrated Work

Communicating with other people productively is one of the most engaging and enriching experiences in my life.  However, the majority of situations people discuss with me in coaching sessions are about communication gone awry—either they don’t understand what others are trying to convey, or they are not able to communicate in a way that is understood by others. Certainly, this is a common organizational concern as any two humans are bound to perceive the world differently.  Those differences are both the seeds of conflict and the source of new ideas and solutions

Communication mishaps can cause incredible pain, as I know from personal experience. Miscommunication have caused me sleepless nights, anxiety, and a great deal of stress. To help you avoid a similar fate, here are the methods I have been using to resolve miscommunications.

One of the first steps to help work through a miscommunication is to think about the main purpose of your interaction with the other person or group.   This understanding is needed to help guide your decisions about resolving the issue and to provide an important quality check: “Have I preserved or enhanced the primary focus of this relationship through resolving a miscommunication?” If you can answer that question positively, you know you’re on the right track.

Do not try to evaluate your success based on whether the person now understands “how right you are.” This strategy inevitably leads to further communication mishaps.

I have found that clarity on three levels is required to resolve a misunderstanding:

  • The first level is obtaining a common understanding of the concrete facts of a situation,
  • The second level is discussing the various interpretations that resulted from those facts,
  • The third level is gaining agreement about what to do next.

Too often, only one or two of the levels are addressed, which leads to further communication problems.

Facts — What Happened?

To gain a common understanding of the objective facts of the situation, it is important to talk through step-by-step your knowledge of the situation and check it with the other person.  You may not have some important pieces, or they may not.  Together, you are more likely to have the whole picture.  Frequently people are operating from a different set of facts about what has transpired, which begins a cycle of misunderstanding.

In preparation for the conversation, be sure that you extract your interpretations and opinions from the events themselves.  Try to be brief, clear, and specific about the actual events that occurred, in the order they occurred.  Consider making a list of the facts prior to the meeting and editing out unnecessary details and emotional comments.  “Just the facts, ma’am,” as Joe Friday would say.  At this point you are simply trying to figure out what happened, not how you felt about it.  If possible, try to achieve agreement with the other person on the basic facts of what transpired before you move to the next level.

Interpretations — What Did It Mean?

The next level requires getting clarity about what meaning each person ascribed to the events that occurred.  Essentially, what is being clarified is your own response to what happened.  This is fertile territory for misunderstandings, as individuals naturally draw different conclusions from the same events. The key is understanding that your interpretation is not the only one, nor exclusively the correct one.  Different backgrounds, cultures, industries, disciplines, levels of experience and personalities influence people to attribute vastly different meaning to the same event.

You can learn a great deal if you listen to how others experienced and interpreted the circumstances.  As you listen, consider how both your interpretation and theirs can be right.  Ask yourself “How could that be true?” when an interpretation you find hard to accept is explained.  Opening yourself to other possible truths will lead to surprising new conclusions and breakthroughs.

You are not necessarily going to obtain agreement with others at this level.  At the levels of facts and actions it is important to agree; at the level of interpretation it is more important to hear one another’s perspective and see what you can learn.  Be generous in allowing others to have their point of view. You do not want to argue, defend, or persuade – your job is simply to understand.   During the conversation, you might ask questions to ensure you are clear on their perspective.  If you really do not understand their interpretation, ask for more information.  Use neutral prompts such as: Can you say more about that?  What led you to that conclusion? or How so?

Actions — What Needs To Be Done?

In this third level, you are seeking clarity around what actions need to be taken based on your understanding of the facts and the interpretations.  There are many different approaches that can be considered.  For instance, would contacting someone, setting up a new system, analyzing a report, or implementing a procedure help mend the situation?  Consider some options on your own before working through them with others, but do not become too attached to the ones you developed in advance. You may find that during the conversation, you can create even better solutions.

Consider starting the conversation with a question to understand others’ ideas about how to proceed. What suggestions do you have to remedy this situation? What needs to happen next? Often there are different layers of actions at which the misunderstanding needs to be addressed.  For instance, you may have one set of actions that involves staff, another that reaches out to the client, and another that requires a new procedure.  Or someone may suggest that a big-picture modification is needed, while you have been thinking about a more detailed piece.   Agree on the sequence and the specifics of the actions identified so both parties know what to expect going forward.   Without clarity on this level, miscommunications continue to fester with new misunderstandings stacked on top of old ones.

After you have gained clarity on all three levels, you can be more confident in your understanding of what happened, how others interpreted the situation and what to do about it.  In my experience, the solutions that arise from these multi-layered conversations are often much more insightful and creative than expected.  Resolving misunderstandings becomes a source of innovation, deeper understanding and improved work relationships.

Feel free to forward this article to others. Permission to reprint or reproduce in a newsletter, publication, or by an electronic means is granted, provided that it includes this notice:

“Copyright 2006 by Integrated Work Strategies. From Fulfilling Work , an e-newsletter by Jessica Hartung, CEO and Professional Development Consultant. Website: Email:”

We would also appreciate receiving a copy of the work.