How to avoid misunderstandings in times of uncertainty

browningyork Communication audiences, Communication lessons, General communication, Planning

A pink, green and brown square with the words 'what do you mean?'One piece of communication can send many messages, some of which may not be immediately obvious to the person sending it. This is particularly true in situations of uncertainty, where your people are worried about the future. They may even be actively looking for hidden meaning behind your words.

So as communicators we need to be extra mindful of the potential for misunderstandings in our work right now. We need to be advising our leaders of the possibility that our people will perceive communications in ways that are different to the way in which they are intended.

For example, if you are reporting your organisation’s current situation and choose to only publish the views of external stakeholders, you may be sending out the message that your employees’ opinions aren’t important. Similarly, if you publish only glowing reports from employees, when they know the reality is not so positive, you are signalling that your communications are not to be trusted.

It’s far better to go with a balanced piece of mixed opinions, showing that all views are important and you are honest enough to show that it’s not all good news.

Multiple levels of message
There are many levels of messaging in communications. There’s the messages you think you’ve given; the straight-forward, literal meaning of the words you use; what your audience thinks you’ve said; what they think you meant; ‘accidental’ messages…

It’s no wonder communication can so easily go wrong when there’s all this going on.

How do you avoid misunderstandings?
Considering communications from other perspectives as well as your own helps and clarity is really important. Here are a few things to keep your communication straightforward and avoid any misunderstandings.

1. The messages you think you’ve given
Be really clear in your own mind about what you want to say because if you start waffling or losing track yourself, then others won’t stand a chance of following you. Keep it simple to reduce the possibilities of creeping meaning or misunderstanding from others.

2. The straight-forward, literal meaning of your words
You might think this is about the dictionary definitions of the words you choose to use. But consider phrases such as ‘it was quite clear what you bought at the shop’; this could either mean that it was completely clear what you bought OR it could mean that it was partly clear, but I’m not totally sure.

Not always so straight-forward, or indeed so literal, after all. So check for possible double meanings.

3. What your audience thinks you said
There is only so much control you can have over this, but taking time to understand your audience before you communicate will really help. By getting to grips with who they are, what they know and what’s important to them right now, you’ll stand a much better chance of aligning your messages with what they will hear.

4. What your audience thinks you meant
This is also a tricky one to master completely, but having trust in place will help. If they don’t trust the person who is giving the message, they are far more likely to believe there is a hidden meaning.

Make sure that the culture you are operating in is one of trust and honesty – do everything you can to foster this openness, then there will be less reason for them to believe you meant something other than what you said. Taking time to understand your audience before you communicate will really help. By getting to grips with who they are, what they know and what’s important to them, you’ll stand a much better chance of aligning your messages with what they will hear.

Actions also need to match the words you say in order to build trust – it’s no good saying ‘our people are important to us’ and then dismissing them if they raise concerns about safety, for example.

5. ‘Accidental’ messages
These are most common in situations of uncertainty and change, so are a particular risk during our current times. People are often actively looking for hidden messages. They may put 2 and 2 together and make 5.

For example, you may need to move desks around in your office to ensure better social distancing. However, if you don’t explain to people why you have done this, they may return from furlough, find their desk is now nearer to the door and assume that means their job will soon be gone.

Consider communications from other perspectives as well as your own to avoid accidental misunderstandings. Explaining the reasons for decisions and actions will also help people to understand what is really going on.

Getting the messaging right is a tricky business, especially during times of difficulty. But with a little planning and a lot of thought, it can be done. If you would like help with identifying potential misunderstandings, feel free to get in touch.

Until next time
Sarah