Communication can be a real challenge; working across cultures, backgrounds, experiences, and perspectives can result in different interpretations — and this is under the best of circumstances. However, when it’s written communication, the challenge is multiplied due to the lack of feedback cues from facial expressions, body language, and the like. These challenges make it exceedingly easy to create a situation where what a person hears is entirely different from what the speaker (or writer) intended.
These disconnects can create many negative impacts & make productive communication impossible. When communicating as a professional, there are a number of things to keep in mind, a few of which I’ve collected here.
What you intend is effectively irrelevant when communicating with others; it’s their perception that matters, as that’s what they will act on. For example, you may intend to be supportive, and it could instead be seen as patronizing. You may intend to say something that spurs conversation and instead shut it down. Perhaps you intend to take a strong position on something you care about, but in the process, you come across as a bully. These perceptual mismatches are all too easy to create through less than ideal communication, and, likely, we’ve all confused our listeners many times by making mistakes like these. When a person reacts to your communication, they can only infer your intent - and it can be drastically different than your actual intent.
Just because the intent was good doesn’t mean that the result will be; philosophy has an entire school of thought about this, consequentialism. In consequentialism, one’s intent isn’t considered when determining if an act (or lack of action) is right or wrong. Only the result it produces is considered. If you do something with the honest intention to do good, but it works out to cause more harm than good, then the action was wrong. While consequentialism is about morals, it also works for communication. How a person perceives what you have to say matters, not the intent in your mind while saying it.
With so much that can go wrong, we must be diligent in placing ourselves in the recipient’s shoes — try to do our best to see how something would be perceived, and adjust as needed to minimize the risk of them coming away with a different meaning. Of course, it’s impossible to get this correct 100% of the time, but it is possible to try 100% of the time.
Words have meanings, often more than one, and sometimes different meanings to different groups. What may seem innocent to one group, may be insulting or demeaning to another. What may be a minor expression of opinion to one, maybe inflammatory or aggressive to another. Thus, our choice of words is critical to ensuring that our communications achieve our intent, instead of leaving the meaning up to the ambiguity of inference, or worse, creating a perception entirely at odds with the original purpose.
The use of inflammatory terminology, calling an entity evil, for example, can send discourse into dangerous territory and lead to people feeling attacked or bullied. It can lead to shutting down a conversation or leave it spiraling out of control, becoming ever more problematic. If you find yourself using any of the following, you should likely reconsider your word choice.
- Always, Never, Everyone, No-one, Best, Worst - This is a sign of oversimplification and generalization.
- Overstatements & Exaggerations - Statements should be fact-based, clear, and accurate.
- Extreme Words - The use of words that evoke extremes (evil, obnoxious, devil, etc.) set the stage for hostility and degradation of discourse.
- Name Calling - While one wouldn’t generally do this in a professional context, it happens more often than it should, especially when referring to external entities. This is another dangerous territory, and can have particularly harmful effects even when the target isn’t part of the conversation.
- Implications - It is easy to make assumptions about the feelings and positions of the recipient, and imply certain things without directly stating them. This can lead to varying understandings, and even outright wrong interpretations when those assumptions are incorrect.
- Omissions - By omitting details, such as other facts, different opinions, mitigating factors, and the like, it’s possible to create an inaccurate view, and create a variety of interpretations among those with portions of the missing information.
- Facts vs. Opinions - There are places and times that opinions are perfectly appropriate, but they need to be expressed as what they are, opinions. Care should be taken to avoid a listener (or reader) confusing opinion for fact. This is particularly important for professional opinions versus personal opinions; my personal opinion of something may be quite different from my professional opinion of the same thing. Professional opinions are held to a higher standard and are more influential; as such, it’s vital that they not be mixed.
Sexist language, racist, homophobic, transphobic, and so many other categories should be avoided at all costs, even when quoting another source. There are many types of exclusionary and offensive language, all of which are harmful regardless of who the intended target is, or if the intended target ever hears it. Generally speaking, if you have to ask if it could be offensive, it’s best to look for other options (or completely reevaluate what you are saying).
As the speaker, the onus is on you to understand what a statement means and how different people could understand it. At times, people will use a term that they believe to be innocent, but is problematic. While the intent isn’t to offend, it doesn’t make the use of such a term less offensive. This requires a conscious effort to understand different groups and how they use terminology, soliciting and listening to feedback. A constant process of education to ensure that your understanding of a term is accurate and not offensive.
This requires self-awareness, sensitivity to others, and the willingness to invest in being a better and more effective communicator. Not everyone does this naturally; for some, this is a more significant and more conscious effort, though it’s an effort that is necessary.
Given that perception is the reality to the listener, it’s imperative to make this investment and clearly understand every word and its various meanings.
Professional and respectful discourse should be encouraged; this means being open to contrary views, opinions, and perspectives. Unfortunately, it’s all too easy to shut down a conversation through poorly considered communication, leaving others involved with no desire to continuing to engage. Even worse, it can create an environment where ideas and opinions are withheld out of fear of the response. When the door for respectful and honest communication is closed, it comes at a cost — great ideas that are never considered, new perspectives that go unheard, useful information goes unshared, and the potential for adversarial relationships to develop.
There’s no expectation for everyone to always agree, but everyone deserves to be heard, and have their thoughts and ideas fairly considered. This is impossible when they are reluctant to share them because of poor and ineffective communication styles. Progress isn’t made when ideas are suppressed; success isn’t achieved when thoughts are held up by fear.
Discourse should be open, honest, and respectful. Anything less than this is an error that should be addressed as quickly as possible, lest a culture of fear and isolation develop.
Every person, regardless of innate trait or choice, deserves to be treated with respect, deserves to be heard, deserves to work without fear, or degradation, or condescension, or a thousand other things that place barriers, restrictions, limits, or otherwise hold them back from being their best. There’s never a valid reason for being disrespectful in professional communication or a professional environment (or, frankly, in any communication or environment).
Think about how the people you are communicating with will feel, what they will think, how your words will impact them. Try to understand the world from their perspective and consider your words in that light; this can often expose issues that would otherwise be missed; empathy is crucial to good communication. Coming to a conversation from a point of empathy allows you to understand issues and challenges easier, will enable you to find better solutions, and more quickly come to a shared understanding. If you engage without empathy, without understanding the other parties, you are not only working with woefully incomplete information, you are allowing your own biases and opinions to color the discussion. This likely means you are missing crucial points that could be addressed if you were working with a better understanding, and more open to their perspective.
It is your duty, no matter your role, to treat everyone with respect, including hearing them (not just letting them speak) and engaging in a good-faith manner. Nothing less than that should be accepted.
Allowing a person to speak is a simple and inactive task; hearing them, on the other hand, is an active task that requires several things:
- Paying attention to what they are saying and how.
- Understanding their perspective, challenges, and issues.
- Setting aside your biases and preconceived notions so that you can empathize and actually understand them.
- Reserving judgement until you are fully informed, instead of making decisions or forming positions based on incomplete information.
If you don’t make an effort to actually hear a person, you are doing them and everyone else a disservice, and you are not truly engaged; if you are in a conversation just to support your own views and opinions, you are almost certainly speaking without adequate insight to form a meaningful position. Thus, you’re doing more harm than good. While you may still come to a position that disagrees with others you are communicating with, this position should be born of careful consideration of all relevant information, not just the information you came into it with.
Take time to think about what you say, how others will feel, and you’ll be able to engage at a more meaningful level. This does require effort, but it’s a worthy investment, and you owe it to those you work with. These more meaningful conversations lead to better results, better ideas, better solutions, better relationships, and a better environment.
Everyone deserves respect, and it should be demonstrated in how you communicate.