Make yourself understood

It is hardly a shock that managers spend 75 percent of their time communicating with staff. While approximately 75 percent of manager/staff communication is face-to-face, unfortunately, misinterpretation and miscommunication are rampant.

Inflections are misinterpreted. The differences between male and female listening patterns are well documented but still vexing. “Harmless little jokes” result in lawsuits when one party feels slighted.

We can edit memos or e-mail before they are sent — but the words in conversations are real-time and done.

How can a corporate executive reduce the chances of being misunderstood (or misunderstanding what is said) in conversations with employees? Smart Business asked Robert Serum, vice president of Academics and International Programs at Northwood University, Midland, Mich., for some tips.

What is the difference between misinterpretation and miscommunication?
Suggesting a fundamental difference would be contrived at best. Some would suggest that miscommunication is a form of misinterpretation that falls into one or more of several defined categories, such as bypassing or polarization. Even in the field of art, many critics would say no interpretation is really wrong, and that, once published, the artist has no more interpretation authority than the critic. Humans have a unique ability to communicate across time and great distance.

Which is more prevalent and why?
If you accept the slight limitation above, then misinterpretation is more prevalent and miscommunication might be seen as a subset.

Is this because people miss inflections or body language?
Those are factors, but there are many examples of miscommunication that don’t depend on either. For example, you and I work together, and I invite you to lunch at the Holiday Inn tomorrow. You ask the time, and I say, ‘Let’s meet in the parking lot at 11:45.’ The next day, you are waiting in the company lot and I’m waiting in the Holiday Inn parking lot at 11:45. Nobody’s wrong, but nobody asked, ‘Which parking lot?’ We have completely ‘bypassed’ as sender and receiver.

What are the main ways communications go wrong?
Communication tends to go wrong because of unexamined assumptions. Both parties assume understanding was perfect and perhaps neither has asked, ‘What is going on here?’

Every form of miscommunication is exacerbated by data overload and the increasingly complex environments in which we live and work.

Are there really big differences between male and female listening patterns?
Every evaluation I have examined indicates that women are generally superior communicators. For example, women make better eye contact, and making good eye contact helps the receiver pick up on nuances. People don’t always say what they mean in words, as you suggest with the question on body language and inflection. Women are more likely to give noncompetitive feedback, which also helps clarify.

As a communicator, how do you avoid these pitfalls?
It simply can’t be done impeccably. Cultivating a discipline for clarification is very important. Undertaking some study of how communication patterns go wrong can be helpful. But you can also help by encouraging healthy communication, which might take the form of an employee feeling comfortable about telling you when things aren’t going right. Without that feedback, you are at a disadvantage. For that to happen, though, your employee must learn to trust you-and that won’t be likely to happen unless you trust your employee and demonstrate your trust.

How about when I’m the listener? What can I do to be more receptive?
Again, ask questions out loud … and ask yourself follow-up questions. If you don’t know the answers, check back. And don’t forget eye contact.

How do you handle a case where it becomes obvious your worker did not really understand what you meant in a conversation?
Always take responsibility yourself, because you are one-half of every miscommunication. Your employee will be encouraged that you are comfortable commenting on your faults and will probably also take responsibility. Then ask the employee, ‘How could we have prevented this.’ If you don’t get a good answer, suggest one.

We mentioned e-mail. Does the Internet make it easier or more difficult for a supervisor to communicate clearly with employees?
Both. E-mail is a written record that you and others can re-examine when there is uncertainty. E-mail also adds dramatically to the numbers of direct communications most of us have every day — some of them to the other side of the globe. So the magnitude adds to both the better and the worse.

On balance, I come down on the side of ‘better,’ but I worry that it can replace too much necessary face-to-face communication. Face-to-face communication almost always tells us more.

ROBERT SERUM is vice president of Academics and International Programs at Northwood University, Midland, Mich. He earned an AB in Business Administration from Hope College, Holland, Mich., and his Master’s and Ph.D. in English from the University of Alabama. Reach him at (989) 837-4327.