The key to communication: don't make assumptions
My favorite philosophy-type book is The Four Agreements. It discusses four basic principles to live by, one being “don’t make assumptions.” I’m sure you’ve seen this happen in both work and in personal relationships; someone meaning no ill will make an assumption that then creates a misunderstanding. Due to the confusion, someone’s feelings end up being hurt, and it may even escalate into a major conflict. It happens all the time, including to me.
I can remember working on a big initiative, purposely taking time at a staff meeting to explain what it was and how it fit into our strategic plan. I continued working on it diligently for almost a year and then rolled it out, only to discover some people didn’t understand what we were doing, or why we were doing it. My initial reaction was confusion, but after giving it some thought, I realized I had made a bad assumption. I assumed everyone was as familiar with the project as I was. While it was on my mind constantly for a year, they had only heard about it once, and that was a year ago — shame on me.
When there is change, it’s recommended that management “over-communicate.” This means delivering a message or information several times, preferably in several ways (verbal, written, etc.). Some even say, “Deliver a message seven times, seven ways.” This is critical, but to avoid making assumptions about what was understood or what everyone’s perspectives are, I’d add that managers also need to stop and listen. It reminds me of a great saying: You have one mouth and two ears; use them proportionately.
This issue surfaced again recently when a situation that I was involved in became royally messed up because a few of us tried to resolve an issue without including the person we were trying to help. We made some assumptions about how that person felt and perceived the issue, thinking we knew what was best. Unfortunately, our “help” only compounded the problem. In the end when we got the right people directly involved, asked their opinion, and really listened to their response (no more assumptions), we were able to quickly resolve things.
In surveys, employees often rank communication as the greatest organizational weakness. And while there can be other, more complex communication issues, making assumptions is probably the most common problem. The good news is the solution is rather simple: Include all parties affected by the issue, be very clear, and don’t forget to listen. Oh, and repeat as needed, up to seven times.