Why Assuming the Obvious Can Lead to Miscommunication

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It is not easy to communicate effectively, but it’s one of the most important tools to cultivate when building a business and working collaboratively. One of the biggest roadblocks to successful communication is making assumptions. You’ve likely heard the famous saying about what happens when we “assume.” And though it may be a slightly crass modern proverb, the crux of its message applies in business.

It is all too easy to assume that everyone we work with is starting on the same page, working with the same information and coming to the same implications and conclusions. However, when we rely on these assumptions, communication often breaks down, leading to frustration and missed opportunities. So what can we do to avoid falling into such a tempting trap?

Align intentions and expectations ahead of time

Communicating effectively requires alignment on why you are meeting, the outcome you are collectively seeking and the roles each stakeholder will play. An effective tactic I use is to include an objective and an anticipated outcome in every meeting invitation. I don’t always have a detailed agenda, but providing the intentions of the discussion enables my audience to prepare and consider how best to contribute and engage.

If I don’t come into the conversation prepared with clear, actionable steps, my audience may leave without knowing what to do next. When I plan and prepare for conversations before having them, I get crystal clear on my intentions and have fewer misunderstandings in the long run.

Related: How Effective Employee Communication Boosts Productivity

Be mindful of “pile on” pitfalls

Piling on is when someone else makes a point that you or others jump in and expand upon, reinforcing the point and providing additional support or contrast. However, it can lead to several people commenting on the same point without materially contributing to the insight or implication.

Everyone’s unique input and perspective are valuable if delivered effectively. When you initiate a discussion, know what you want to say and what you hope to convey with it. It’s usually best not to speak just to say something or to be noticed in the meeting. Consider taking a cue from Plato:

“Wise men speak because they have something to say, while fools speak because they have to say something.”

Semantics matter

As experts in our chosen fields, we may become so steeped in our niche that we do not realize we are using specific or highly technical jargon that others may not apply in the same way, or fully understand. While jargon and technical language have their time and place, using plain language breaks down barriers, helping people to relate better. This is especially true if they are new to the company or field, or are still adjusting to nuances.

A study from the Columbia Business School found that competent and confident leaders are less likely to use jargon, focusing primarily on communicating effectively. Those who did use jargon were largely perceived as doing so to elevate their status or sound “smart.”

Even the government has recognized this problem. Legalities are wordy and hard to understand, so it created a website to teach employees how to make legal texts more accessible to the general public. The website offers training sessions for government sectors and employees who want to ensure that complex jargon is easy to understand.

The next time you speak to a group, try to be conscious of your language. Would somebody without knowledge of your field fully understand your message? Consider testing it out with friends and family who know little about your job. If you find yourself slipping into jargon, consider where it comes from. Is the jargon truly necessary to communicate your point? Are you using it because it is what you are acccustomed to and assume your audience knows it, too? Or are you trying to sound knowledgeable?

In my experience, using language that invites everyone into the conversation with ease is more effective than industry-speak.

Furthermore, engage and involve your listeners by creating open-ended conversations with room for questions and clarifications. In doing so, we can minimize assumptions and maximize active listening.

Active listening ensures you have confirmation that the recipient understood your message. We should be careful not to accept non-verbal responses as affirmative signs of agreement or understanding. A nod can only tell you so much, but if someone repeats back to you what you expect in a verbal agreement or you create written agreements, there is less room for uncertainty.

Related: 3 Communication Errors That Negatively Impact Women Leaders

Embrace and integrate everyone’s unique communication style

Individuals are just that – they work, think, and speak differently. I’ve learned that taking individuality into account improves communication. My company uses communication approaches to identify each team member’s communication and innovation style. I was a student of Jeff DeGraff at the University of Michigan through a special fellowship called QuantumShift, and have since integrated many of his concepts into our organization. There are many ways to go about this, including Clifton Strengths, Myers-Briggs, Enneagram, and more that may aid your group in coming to a better understanding of each individual’s unique styles and needs.

I believe that letting go of assumptions and making space for every individual to come to the table with their unique communication style will improve collaboration and team spirit. It takes time to enroll everyone and implement it, but the payoff in understanding, connection and long-term efficiency is worth the effort.

Related: Why Executives Must Remain Humble in the Face of Critical Feedback

Recall alone won’t get the work done

Assuming that the listener understood your message or that you are all on the same page without actively (and verbally) confirming it can cause projects to go awry. People can be left feeling confused at best and unheard at worst, and most don’t speak up.

When our message is urgent, significant or important, we may expect our audience to recall every detail of the discussion we’ve had. However, even when aligned on the matter’s urgency, our ability to retain conversation details is very low. One study found that after only five minutes, people recollect about 10% of what was said in social exchanges.

After the conversation has finished, we cannot assume that the next steps are obvious to all involved. The conversation ends when we stop speaking, and no further action is taken unless we take the time to discuss agreements and specific next actions.

Initiating discussions with mindful expectations, communicating anticipated outcomes, and remembering the dynamics and differences individuals have in communication styles can go a long way in enrolling stakeholders within the same team.

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