People Management

How to Communicate Well at Work: 10 Mistakes to Avoid

By Andrée-Anne Blais-Auclair January 20 2021

Good communication in the workplace is the promise of satisfying, authentic—and most importantly, productive—conversations.


What’s more, identifying what obstacles might keep you from really getting through is essential for your role as a manager.

Communicating with one’s staff could be misconceived as something that comes naturally. On the contrary, every instance is molded by each person’s personality, baggage, and unconscious dynamics; you have to get a read on it as it goes.

Considering the sheer number of possible communication strategies, a little sorting out session is in order.

So without further ado, here are 10 mistakes to avoid to communicate better at work.

Context-Related Mistakes

1. Neglecting the Importance of Time, Setting, and Medium

Pick the right moment wisely for everything you do. Idle talk about what you did yesterday doesn’t require the same amount of preparation as tackling an important work-related problem. To make sure your messages always come through, give your employee a heads-up and carefully choose when to have important conversations.

Choose the right setting, too. A friend of mine was once invited to a performance evaluation meeting in a crowded café. It turns out she was being fired. Needless to say, the sensitivity of the matter called for a more adequate venue.

Select the right medium as well. If you have something important to say, nothing beats the classic one-on-one conversation. Why take the chance of having your intentions or state of mind misinterpreted over text?

💡 To communicate efficiently:

  • For anything more consequential than typical small talk, call a meeting, be it in person or over the phone.
  • Give the involved party a heads-up so that they can prepare.
  • Pick a neutral location where everyone involved will feel safe and comfortable. By “feeling safe,” I mean feeling that they can let their guard down and trust that your conversation will remain confidential.

Content-Related Mistakes

2. Lack of Preparation

In any delicate or serious conversation, you have to account for your own emotions.

Emotions can become invasive and make it difficult to keep to the facts. Stress can by itself can make your initial plan go awry and make everyone involved uncomfortable.

Be prepared.

3. Lack of Consideration for the Other Person

If your preparation only revolves around you and your own goals, you’re messing up.

For more efficient communication, empathy must be part of the equation. Empathy is kind of a catch-all concept, and as such can be hard to define in a concrete manner.

It is in fact the ability to understand other people’s feelings and to integrate them into one’s own perspective.

In other words, think about the person you’re talking to and tailor your approach and language to them. For instance, don’t try and talk to a rational person the same way you’d address a more emotional person.

Ask yourself the following questions:

How could this or that make them feel?

How could their reaction alter what you have to say?

Is this person responsive or not?

Is this person sensitive or not?

💡 To communicate efficiently:

  • Prepare important conversations in advance, with a clear head.
  • Always ask yourself beforehand: what is the purpose of this conversation? Who am I talking to?
  • Jot down your main talking points like you were drafting a table of contents.
  • Then, add detail, examples, and explanations to lay the conversation out.
  • Don’t forget to consider the other person while doing so.
  • Finally, prepare for any question that might come up.

Communication Mistakes

4. Interrupting

During a conversation, you might be tempted to interrupt your interlocutor for various reasons, which at first might appear justified:

  • Maybe you guessed what they’re about to say;
  • Maybe you disagree with what they’re saying;
  • Maybe you’re so riled up that you can’t wait to say your piece.

None of these reasons make interrupting someone justifiable.

By interrupting the other, you might make them feel like you’re not actually listening to them; by doing so repeatedly, they might even feel like you don’t care about what they have to say.

There is an exception, however: should the conversation get out of hand and your employee or colleague disrespect you or lose control, you may legitimately interrupt them, the idea being to prevent the conversation from spiraling out of control and become counterproductive.

5. Not Making Sure You Understand Each Other

Mutual understanding is the whole point of a conversation.

You might think this is obvious.

In other words, if an employee leaves a meeting with you and wonders what it was about or what your expectations toward them were, you missed the mark.

An old boss of mine used to close every meeting by telling me: “Ok, what I take away from this is XYZ. Is that right?”

I’d both feel like she had actually listened to me and thought what I had to say was important enough to consider.

6. Giving Unsolicited Advice

If an employee is telling you about a personal challenge they’re facing or something at work that irritates them, there are many ways you can simply  listen to them.

Many hold a deep-seated belief that merely listening isn’t helping per se.

Is this your case?

If you ever looked for a sympathetic ear just to be given advice in return, you might know just how annoying this is.

And not only is it annoying, but it can actually undermine your confidence.

Throwing advice at someone gives them the impression that you know best. It doesn’t motivate them to take responsibility; rather, it discourages them from thinking for themselves about what’s best for them.

Nobody wins there.

7. Trying to Fill Every Gap

While silence is necessary, it might be uncomfortable sometimes.

Learning to tolerate silence might be difficult, but it’s better than trying to fill the gaps all the time, which is sure to result in useless, thoughtless, and ultimately harmful utterances.

💡 To communicate efficiently:

  • Never interrupt unless the conversation gets out of hand or becomes otherwise disrespectful.
  • Validate the other person’s understanding by summarizing your message in one or two sentences at the end and asking them if everything’s clear on their end.
  • Encourage the person to discover for themselves the answers they’re looking for.

Mistakes Related to Emotional Intelligence

8. Responding Rationally to an Emotional Person

Have you ever told someone that times were hard at home, that you were struggling with your S.O., or that you had trouble sleeping… only for them to give you a “closed” response?

Answers like “that’s life” and “it’ll pass” tend to banalize or flat-out invalidate the other person’s experience.

Rational, rote answers such as these send a harmful double message: on the one hand, it shuts down communication; on the other, it makes the other person believe that their feelings shouldn’t bother them so much.

They ultimately won’t feel welcome.

If you’re unavailable or simply don’t want to talk about something at the time being, give it straight to them. Stay honest.

9. Judging or Criticizing

Judgment and criticism are major obstacles to authentic conversation.

If an employee who’s not at their best right this moment fears your judgment, they might simply shut themselves out.

The result? They could overwork themselves by trying to keep their performance at the typical level while things are spiraling down in their personal life.

Judgment and criticism lead people to isolate themselves, to stop trusting others, and experience negative emotions.

Conversely, to inspire trust and openness, you can for instance focus on contextualized observations rather than generalizations.

For reference, the following is a generalizing judgment: “I think you’re taking too many breaks. Please address this.”

Here’s a contextualized judgment: “I’ve noticed that you’ve taken three breaks a day for two consecutive days. Is everything alright?”

For efficient communication, verbalize your observations as much as possible, but without judging, and ask questions rather than take things at face value.

This new way of doing things calls for some deconditioning because our brains are used to judging by themselves, without our input. This habit has to go.

10. Ignoring Place Dynamics

Here’s a concept everyone knows without necessarily being actively aware. There are, in every situation, conscious and unconscious dynamics between people.

It is those dynamics that define relationships and how people act toward each other.

It should be pointed out that hierarchical positions and social roles naturally define place dynamics. For instance, a boss will have the higher ground in the workplace, as they are the one making the rules and assigning work.

As a manager, your goal is to communicate in an open and authentic way. You therefore have to make sure you’re accessible and don’t intimidate your team.

💡 To communicate efficiently:

  • Are you getting emotional confidence that makes you uncomfortable? Be assertive and simply tell them that you don’t think you’re the right person for this, or that this isn’t the time or place to be talking about it. You can even suggest hearing them out some other time.
  • Remind your employees often that you’re available and open to conversation. Plan out some time during your one-on-ones to ask them how they’re doing and give them the opportunity to express themselves.
  • In any conversation, set hierarchy aside and get out of your leader role. Try to listen and to be accessible and open. Those qualities invite conversations that are reciprocal and on an equal footing.

Conclusion

Here’s a poignant quote to close things off.

Between what I think, and I mean and what I think I say

What I say, what you hear and what you understand

There are ten possibilities we might have trouble communicating.

But let’s try anyway.

-Bernard Werber


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