Digital Attitude: Becoming Eminent

The Journey To Authentic Self

3 Simple Miscommunication Fixes

Why aren’t you listening?  Didn’t you read my email?


Do you ever feel like people only catch about 10% of what you say? The good news is you are not going crazy, it may actually be true. The realization that people grasp way less in conversations than we think they do was recently highlighted in an article by Keith Ferrazzi, in the Harvard Business Review, on “How to Avoid Virtual Miscommunications.”  We assume that people know what we mean, but actually… they don’t.

Virtual teams, lacking contextual cues that the other person hasn’t understood what we’re trying to say, often hear only too late that “I thought it was obvious that…” or, “I didn’t think I needed to spell that out.” Farrazi. HBR Blog Network, April 12, 2013

Heidi Grant Halvorson, Ph.D., calls this the Signal Amplification Bias syndrome (though she jests that calling it the “I’m Sure It Was Obvious” Effect would have been much more to the point. – Too Much Miscommunication in your Relationship? A Simple Fix,)

Signal Amplification Bias is really just a fancy way to say there is a  lack of communication.  The tendency is for people to perceive (bias) that they have communicated (signal) more (amplification) information to other people than they actually have.


The potential for miscommunication was bad enough when we were face to face with people on a daily basis, but now, with more virtual teams and alternative methods of communications, it is getting worse.  In my last post, I talked about the lack of contextual cues created by virtual communications, so today I wanted to address making understanding in the virtual world better/easier.

Here are some suggestions to help get your message across:

Check 4 Times:  Ferrazzi, in his article, said that it was not enough to tell someone to “circle back with me” and he is right.  I check at least 4 times with someone when I am trying to make sure that they understand me.  I know this may sound like a lot of work, but after many years of managing teams in India and other non-native English-speaking countries (as well as across the 50 States – which sometimes might as well be different countries), I have found that spending time making sure my message is understood up front is better than trying to fix a miscommunicated instruction 90 days down the road.

  • Day 1: Tell them what you want to tell them on the phone (or in person).
  • Later that day: Follow up with a detailed email of what you told them. You really need to present detailed instructions, otherwise you are leaving your desires open to interpretation.  For example, if you want team members to set up a database that lists all the registered participates of your study, do you want them to decide the fields in the database, or do you already have a template in mind?  If you want them to do it a particular way, they can’t read your mind, you need to spell it out. Remember, that you get what you ask for.  If you are not specific, then you’ll get what they ‘thought’ you wanted.
  • Day 2: Check that they understood what you told them in another phone conversation.  I know that many times I think that what I had asked was clear, but when I hear it back from another person, I realize that my thought process may have been less than full, or lacking some steps.
  • Later that day: Correct what they misunderstood in your first communication in a detailed email.
  • Day 3: Check that they understood what you said the second time.
  • Repeat the process until you are comfortable that all details are clear.

Using multiple mediums, especially phone and email, ensures that important concepts get repeated in several different ways.  This helps, especially, again, for non-native English speakers. Some people like to read maps, others like to see their directions in a list format. The more ways you can present something, the better chance of it being understood.

It used to be that I did not realize my miscommunication (my signal amplification bias) until I get back the first draft of what people thought I asked for. It used to amaze me how much I did not say (or they did not hear).  When you see things in different mediums it helps to catch what you might miss in a verbal conversation or an instant message. Details are better sent in an email that can be discussed and even printed and edited by both sides.

Breaking communications down into smaller chunks also goes a long way toward being understood.  If possible, don’t dump a million task on someone all at the same time.  If you compartmentalized a few things at a time, then you have a better chance for comprehension and you can make sure that the information is understood before moving on to the next chunk.  If the communication fits on more than two email screens, it is probably too long. (Interesting tidbit: ‘Chunking” – the theory that we remember things in chunks, gives evidence that 7 chunks plus or minus 2 may be all we can handle at one time.) 

Bottom line, accept that there will always be some communication issues whenever you have two or more people talking, but keep it short, keep it detailed, and check each parties understanding along the way.  If you do that… the rest should be obvious.

What do you do to make sure your message is heard?


Keep up the good attitude. See you next blog.

– Lorian





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