Potential for miscommunication in the workplace abounds, as the uproar over allegations that presidential candidate Herman Cain sexually harassed former employees (which he denies) clearly demonstrates. Overt misconduct aside, problems in the workplace can occur simply because people have different ways of relaying and hearing information. This often results in personal conflicts, project failures, a plunge in staff morale, and high turnover. The worst-case scenario? Misunderstandings can lead to costly lawsuits.
As a small-business owner, you can avoid many problems simply by improving communication in your office. By clarifying everyone’s expectations and roles, you’ll help build greater trust and increased productivity among employees. Here are a few tips for doing so.
Practice active listening. The art of active listening includes paying close attention to what another person is saying, then paraphrasing what you’ve heard and repeating it back. Concentrate on the conversation at hand and avoid unwanted interruptions (cell phone calls, others walking into your office, etc.). Take note of how your own experience and values may color your perception.
Discuss expectations. A project is launched, with multiple team members involved. Everyone understands what’s expected of them, right? Just in case, the project leader (or you, the owner and/or CEO) can go to each team member and talk about his or her specific tasks and objectives — and how these fit in with what everyone else is doing. Assess potential risks and deal with them immediately. This will help you more effectively address unforeseen issues that may crop up in a later on, too.
Take responsibility. Miscommunication always has at least two participants, the person talking and the person listening. To avoid misunderstandings, take responsibility for making sure that the other person clearly grasps what’s being asked of him. If you do this in a trusting, non-confrontational way, the other person is encouraged to take responsibility for his part, and ask for clarity if it’s needed.
Pay attention to non-verbal cues. We don’t communicate with words alone. Every conversation comes with a host of non-verbal cues — facial expressions, body language, etc. — that may unintentionally contradict what we’re saying. Before addressing a staff member or leading a project conference, think carefully about your tone of voice, how you make eye contact, and what your body is “saying.” Be consistent throughout.
Be clear and to the point. Don’t cloud instructions or requests with irrelevant details, such as problems with past projects or issues with long-departed personnel. State what you need and what you expect. Ask, “Does anyone have any questions?” Demonstrate that you prefer questions up-front as opposed to misinterpretation later on.