How to avoid and repair misunderstandings when communicating at work

Karen O’Donnell from Toastmasters International

We all like to believe that when we communicate the person receiving our communication understands us immediately.However, as Karen O’Donnell from Toastmasters international reminds us-experience tells us otherwise.This can be frustrating, time-wasting and expensive.

Frequently we experience miscommunication where part of the information we want to share is lost or misunderstood. Both people think they understand what has been passed between them but it turns out there has been a potentially damaging “illusion of communication”.

When talking to another person words are filtered through our own unique context grid which is made up of our strongly held opinions, beliefs, and attitudes - shaped and reinforced over a lifetime. This personal filtering results in words being misunderstood, meaning interpreted differently and feelings getting hurt.

Listen with the intent to understand, not the intent to reply. Stephen Covey

All my coaching experience has taught me that what builds a relationship, what solves problems, and what moves situations forward, is asking the right questions.

We need to engage in the art of enquiry and adopt The ABC of Courageous Conversations:

Asking questions to which you may not already know the answer;

Building a relationship based on curiosity and interest in the other person; and

Clarification - seeking clarification so as you understand what is being said.

I’d like you to think for a moment about an important person in your life that you may be avoiding having ‘that’ conversation with, it may be your work colleague or indeed a friend.

Remember, you and the other person use different context filter grids and working through likely assumptions that may have been made is essential to improving our ability to handle conversations.

All Courageous Conversations starts will self-enquiry. Use WOW:

What happened

Without an overlay of our assumptions, what actually happened and how does that make you feel? Who else is it affecting – family/work colleagues?

Own It

How might you have contributed to this situation? Something you did/did not say or do?

Win-win it for you and the other person

When it’s resolved, what positive implication will it have for you/other person and family or work?

How does it make you feel? Who else will benefit from this resolution – family/work colleagues?

Once you are clear on where you stand with this issue, is there someone you need to have a courageous conversation with? Is there anyone who can influence the desired outcome?

Before you start your courageous conversation with this person, do bear the following in mind:

Tip 1 – park your emotions on the shelf. If you are in an emotional state, this is not the time to have the conversation… WAIT. Instead come from a place of curiosity.

Tip 2 – Have the end in sight. What is it you want to achieve in this conversation?

Tip 3 - Be patient and Listen. Slow the conversation down. And listen. We all like to be heard - really heard. They may well have insights you hadn’t counted on.

Courageous conversations can enhance your working relationship. Making room for courageous conversations can deepen that connection, communication and collaboration.

The skill of Enquiry is necessary to identify needs for and facilitate collaboration among interdependent work units. In the role of leader or manager, it is needed to create the relationships and the climate that will promote open communication.

Teams at work often consist of people with a range of conflicting personalities and clashing styles. Getting to a point where a team can collaborate and work in harmony can be a challenging task and takes time. This is why actively encouraging Courageous Conversations and using the art of Enquiry, can help us transform how a team co-operates. Our aim should always be to understand as well as to be understood. That makes work life better and business more successful.


Karen O’Donnell is from Toastmasters International, a non-profit educational organisation that teaches public speaking and leadership skills through a worldwide network of meeting locations. Headquartered in Rancho Santa Margarita, California, the organisation’s membership exceeds 352,000 in more than 16,400 clubs in 141 countries. Since 1924, Toastmasters International has helped people of all backgrounds become more confident in front of an audience. There are more than 300 clubs in the UK and Ireland with over 7,500 members. To find your local club: Follow @Toastmasters on Twitter.