Image courtesy of Victor1558’s Flickr photostream.
Kathleen Petty, the host of the show, pointed out that ‘words that confound and confuse’ are part of daily life. This is particularly true of certain professions (legal and medical) where technical language and jargon are heavily used.
Much of the rest of the call-in show was devoted to discussion about how to clarify jargon. (This is something I also discussed in a previous blog post, Just Say It…In Plain English.)
But chatting with Ms. Petty and her callers made me realize how much of the time poor communication isn’t only about jargon or unnecessarily convoluted language. Sometimes it’s about something far subtler. Let’s just call it “the missing link.”
In science, the missing link is about life forms scientists can’t locate, the essential fossils connecting certain stages of human evolution. In communication, the missing link is usually a crucial detail, or an assumption. Let me give one example. Where is the missing link in this scenario?
Two businessmen are planning a lunch meeting at a restaurant a few long blocks away from their office. One says to the other, “Let’s meet in the parking lot at 1 pm.”
Funnily enough at 1 p.m. one man is in the parking lot of the restaurant, the other in the parking lot at the office.
The missing link was the crucial detail — which parking lot. Of course, these days it seems that this is the reason that the cell phone was invented. But wouldn’t it be nice if there were fewer public conversations where people were shouting into their phones, saying things like, “I’m at X, where are you?”
In the above instance, the poor communication was about lack of detail. And lack of detail is in fact one of two chief causes of failed communication. The other is a tendency to make assumptions. I’ll illustrate this further with two famous sayings:
God is in the Details: If not God, certainly efficiently managed business communications are in the details. Take time with any communications regarding process (where, when, how, why) to make sure every detail is crystal clear.
To Assume Makes an Ass Out of You and Me: Assuming someone else understands what is in your head is like assuming your spouse understands why it bugs you when they don’t tighten the pickle jar lid. You know that you want the pickle jar lid tightened because you don’t want the pickle juice on the bottom of the refrigerator; your spouse may think it’s just one more example of you being unnecessarily fussy about small things. So, in business communication you often need to explain your thinking. Clarify, enumerate, and provide detail. Do not assume that what is important to you is important (and comprehensible) to anyone with whom you are working. Do not end up with spilled pickle juice!
For more tips about making yourself understood, have a look at Smart Business’s article, Make Yourself Understood. As it points out, managers spend 75 % of their time communicating with staff. Even though that communication is largely in person, “unfortunately, misinterpretation and miscommunication are rampant.”
But on a positive note, communication skills are exactly that — skills that can be honed and practiced and improved upon. So, the next time someone suggests meeting in the parking lot, make sure to ask, “which one” and “where.” That way, you will know that you, at least, are making yourself understood, not leaving out details or making assumptions. And you won’t be on your cell phone frantically saying, “I’m here, where are you?”
Do you have an example of how inattention to detail or making assumptions created an awkward situation? Let me know in the comments or send me an email: firstname.lastname@example.org.