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Why So Much Misunderstanding?

Updated: Sep 22, 2023

(This article was originally published on LinkedIn)

When thinking about life on Earth, one thread stands out with critical significance – communication. It's the remarkable gift that sets us, Homo sapiens, apart from all other species that inhabit the planet. From our first primal utterances to the elaborateness of modern languages and digital conversations, communication has been the cornerstone of human evolution and dominance. It's the key that has allowed us to organize, collaborate, and thrive in ways that no other creature on the planet has achieved.

Effective communication is essential in any work environment, and it's even more critical in a virtual one. It can make or break teams and organizations and, when it comes to office politics, it's not only an effective fuel for it but it also feeds from it, creating a perpetuum mobile that is difficult to stop.

This is the topic I addressed in the latest short read of the “The Zen of Office Politics” series and I invite you to explore it.

In “Conflict Management and Virtual Office Politics” I have explained how misunderstandings can lead to conflict which leads to office politics which leads to more conflict.

But how do misunderstandings appear? In order to answer this question, we need to understand what communication is. And it is more than just sending and receiving a message (though even this superficial and extremely simplified scenario is not immune to creating misunderstandings!) - it is an ecosystem made of:

1. A context in which the entire communication event happens,

2. Personal filters - both from the sender who encodes the message and the receiver who decodes it,

3. A message that is communicated,

4. A channel that is used to transmit the message,

5. Contextual and background noise of various sources that alter the message,

6. A feedback mechanism, from the receiver to the sender, that makes communication a bi-directional event.

Feedback is a crucial element of communication. It is not just about nodding or grunting in agreement; it is about the nonverbal cues and verbal responses that we give to let others know we are actively listening and engaging with them. Without feedback, we might as well be talking to a brick wall. It's also important to consider the context and channel of communication. The setting, the audience, and the mode of communication all have an impact on the message's reception.

Fig. 1 - Communication ecosystem

The predictability of our communication style is another aspect to consider. Each of us has a unique way of communicating that includes word choice, length of phrases, argument structure, and other factors. This uniqueness is what makes us human and gives us our individuality. However, it also makes us predictable in how we communicate. When we consistently use the same patterns and structures, it becomes easier for others to understand and interpret our messages. In contrast, when our communication style is inconsistent or unpredictable, it can lead to confusion and misunderstandings.

Effective communication, critical in any work environment, is achieved when we are consciously aware of each of the communication components and use them to our advantage. Being ignorant about them or leaving them to chance, only increases the probability of creating confusion, misunderstandings, hard feelings, and more office politics.

Fig. 2 - Types of filters used to encode/decode messages

The most complex component of the communication ecosystem is the filters. They can wreak havoc on communication and make it challenging to convey messages accurately. Personal filters refer to the biases, prejudices, and life experiences that shape the way we interpret and understand messages. These filters can significantly impact our communication style and affect our ability to connect with others.

Personal filters can cause significant misunderstandings and miscommunications. When we interpret messages through our filters, we can miss critical cues and context, leading to misinterpretation. For example, we might interpret a lighthearted joke as passive-aggressive criticism, leading to unnecessary conflict and tension. Therefore, being aware of our filters and taking a step back to see things from someone else's perspective can help us communicate more effectively.

When it comes to virtual communication, bypassing personal filters is a crucial element in ensuring clear and effective communication.

As the sender, there are a few things you can do to minimize the impact of personal filters on your message. First and foremost, be clear and concise. Avoid using vague or ambiguous language that can be easily misinterpreted. Use concrete examples and be specific about what you mean. Additionally, use visual aids, such as charts or diagrams, to help convey your message more effectively. Visuals can be a great way to convey information and ideas in a virtual workplace. Consider using diagrams, charts, or infographics to help explain complex ideas or processes. Visuals can be especially helpful when communicating with people who have different learning styles.

As the receiver, it's important to be mindful of your filters and how they may be affecting the way you interpret messages. Take the time to read through messages carefully and try to put yourself in the sender's shoes. Consider what their intentions might be and ask clarifying questions if you're unsure about anything. It can also be helpful to take a moment to reflect on your own biases and assumptions and how they may be affecting your interpretation of the message.

One way to bypass personal filters in virtual communication is to use video calls or other forms of face-to-face communication whenever possible. This can help to reduce misunderstandings and provide a more personal connection between the sender and receiver. Additionally, try to avoid using jargon or technical language that may be unfamiliar to the receiver. Instead, use simple, easy-to-understand language that everyone can follow.

Another way to bypass personal filters is to provide feedback and ask for feedback regularly, ensuring, as much as possible, that everyone is on the same page and that the inherent misunderstandings are clarified. Encourage open and honest communication, and make sure that everyone feels comfortable sharing their thoughts and opinions. Confirming or in-firming understanding with the receiver by asking questions like, "Did that make sense?" or "What are your thoughts on this?" not only helps ensure that the receiver understood your message, but it also encourages active participation in the communication.

A third method to fight personal filters is to avoid assumptions about the receiver's knowledge or understanding of the topic at hand. Don't assume that they know what you're talking about, or that they have the same background knowledge as you do. Instead, provide context and background information as needed.

Last, but not least, be mindful of tone. Tone can be difficult to convey in virtual communication, but it's essential to be mindful of how your tone may be interpreted by the receiver. Avoid using sarcasm or humor that may be misinterpreted. Use punctuation and emoticons as needed to convey tone.

Personal filters can be a significant obstacle to effective communication in a virtual work environment, but, by being mindful of our own biases and assumptions, using clear and concise language, and encouraging open and honest communication, we can work to bypass these filters and ensure that our messages are being understood as intended.

Looking at the number of different personal filters and their type, it’s not difficult to grasp how subjective communication can be and how much of it is in fact perception. This is the biggest similarity with office politics, which, as we’ve explained in the short read with the same title, is (nothing more than the) perception of office politics.

(You can read more about communication in Chapter 8 “Storytelling Fuel. From Quarry to Jewel”.)

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