Overcoming Workplace Communication Barriers

Written by
Rebecca Smith

Published
Aug 24, 2020

Aug 24, 2020 • by Rebecca Smith

Remember the old party game ‘Gossip?’ It’s when one person whispers a perfectly simple and ordinary sentence into the ear of another person, something like “All chickens have feathers and beaks.” That person then whispers it into the ear of the next person in the circle, and so on until the sentence is whispered back into the ear of the originator of the sentence, by which time it has become so garbled and nonsensical that it bears little or no resemblance to the original sentence, coming out something like “Chili dogs are made with chicken feathers and beets.”

It’s an entertaining game, but it has a dead serious context -- namely, how hard it is to get a group of people to communicate clearly with one another and understand each other’s goals and purposes. This is an especially vexing challenge when it comes to workplace communication. How many deals have gone sour, how many prospective clients have been lost, how many top employees have jumped ship -- all because of a breakdown in communications. It’s easy to shrug your shoulders and say “It happens all the time; there’s nothing to be done about it.”

And that’s just plain wrong.

There’s plenty that can be done about curing miscommunications and making workplace communication clearer, stronger, and more positive.

This is an especially momentous challenge today, when the virtual workplace is taking the place of the traditional office. As of right now no one can predict exactly when, if ever, health precautions will ever allow us to go back to working together in an office, holding meetings in a conference room, or even allowing more than two people at a time in an elevator. Telecommuting is here to stay, and everyone who works from home is going to need to rethink their communication paradigms. Or face misdirection, confusion, and enough emotional fallout to fill the Grand Canyon.

Get a grip on your communication channels

 When you’re part of a team charged with certain specific goals and deadlines, it’s vital that all team members are on the same page and working smoothly together -- despite the fact that they may be separated by hundreds of miles from each other and will never meet together physically. One of the best ways to ensure this happens is to reach a consensus on exactly what communication channels are the most suitable, most efficient, and most accepted, by the team to get the work done. Maybe a continuous flow of emails is what’s needed. 

Maybe constant phone calls are the standard everyone feels comfortable with and works best with. Or maybe the only reality is Zoom. Or some blend of communication technologies that everyone is comfortable with like sending roses for birthdays instead of cake and cards. Don’t just assume that the way you like to communicate is the way everyone else does -- again, reach a consensus. Be the one willing to be flexible with communication technology, and be patient and willing to teach others, when necessary, how to use new technologies like Zoom.

Document and backup

“I never got that memo.” Remember those famous last words? With modern communication technology there’s literally no sane excuse for not having a record of every communication exchanged between you and your coworkers and management. But the trick is to make sure that your documentation is easily accessible and does not disappear into the cloud with some impossible backup application. There’s going to be times when you’ll need to review previous teleconferencing decisions and strategies, email documents, and even text messages, among other things. Make sure that you can do so quickly and easily -- and if you can’t, make that an immediate priority.

Ask questions

Maybe there are such things as stupid questions, but sometimes you just have to have the guts to ask them anyways -- to admit that maybe you weren’t paying the strictest attention or never graduated with a Ph.D in advanced mathematics, so you need someone to explain it to you over again in simpler terms. Or you just want to repeat what you’ve heard, just to make sure you heard it right and that you understand it correctly. The same principle applies when a coworker interrupts your brilliant presentation on Zoom to ask something obvious -- instead of going into a rant, try to be patient and understanding, realizing that not everyone is going to be up to speed with you all the time. A large vocabulary is a good thing at times, but if your language or jargon is getting in the way of communicating clearly with your colleagues (or with management) you need to bring it down a bit. Nobody’s paying you to be a walking thesaurus.

Edit yourself

No need to be as silent as the Sphinx, but keeping it short and sweet when communicating with your staff and coworkers is one of the best ways to keep from being misunderstood.