The Mis-Interpreter

Communication inevitably involves miscommunication.  However, have you ever worked with someone with whom miscommunications constantly seem to occur?  You give this person what you think is a clear message, yet he or she misinterprets what you’ve said and lengthy clarification discussions always seem necessary?  And if your message does contain a minor ambiguity, this person always seems to find and rely on it to their benefit or your detriment?

I’ve concluded that if an employee is always embroiled in miscommunications and misunderstandings, despite efforts by others to communicate clearly, the problem is likely them. I am no psychologist so I will not offer a diagnosis – and in many cases, there may be no “diagnosis” per se – but I reach this conclusion after years of investigating and coaching difficult employees.

So what can be done about this type of employee? Here are some suggestions:

  • First, identify that this is a problem: that your co-worker (subordinate, peer, supervisor) seems to frequently misinterpret or misunderstand what others say. 
  • Continue to have friendly conversations with the person, but put important things in writing.
  • Write as clearly as possible, but do not do not be clear to the point of insult and do not feel you have to be clear beyond what a reasonable person would see as your meaning
  • Ask the person to let you know if they have any questions.
  • Repeat any key points in a way that doesn’t look too repetitive.  E.g., after setting a meeting date, agenda, and goals, end the e-mail (the most likely form of communication) with “See you at 10:00 on Friday for our expectations clarification meeting.”
  • If something is really important, consider hand delivering the message and discussing it orally as well.  Because the frequent misinterpret-er often will somehow fail to get important messages.

Communicating in this way can be exhausting, but it does help minimize the chaos that can result from misunderstood messages. If you are the mis-interpreter’s supervisor, it may be worthwhile to address the issue head on (though diplomatically) to see if there is something you and others can do differently to improve communication. If the problem continues, it may be grounds for a performance improvement plan.

If you’re a peer or subordinate, you also could ask the person what you can do to avoid misunderstandings.  You never know, it might be something simple….

 Any other ideas on how to address this problem?  ~Amy Stephson

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