Consider this work scenario. You’re wrapping up a meeting, surrounded by colleagues when one of your supervisors says to you, “That’s a great idea.” What does this mean?

Was it a genuine affirmation? Was it sarcasm? Was promoting your idea a way to criticize another? Was it simply a statement to fill time?

One-liners like this can be tricky to decipher and can lead to misinterpretations. So as you sit there, perceivably accepting a compliment, should you question the sincerity of your superior’s compliment? How should you respond?

A simple “thank you” is what you go with, but you also want to push the conversation forward. So you ask, “should we move forward and implement my plan?”

Your coworkers in the meeting nod their heads in agreement.

Phew, that was close.

This is how we want our conversations in the workplace to go. We look to tackle problems or challenges with solutions. Sometimes, though, we lose bits and parts of messages and scramble to completely understand intended messages.

Communication is a thinking man’s game.

In the workplace, communication signals and interpretive frameworks are two parts to become familiar with. “Communication signals” are the words and gestures you use to show your meanings to others. “Interpretive frameworks” are based on assumptions that people make about you. It’s supposed to assist what you’re signaling. These interpretive frameworks are important because messages fail to have meaning without interpretation. The receiver may interpret the message incorrectly from its original intention. This coexistence of multiple meanings of a word or phrase is called polysemy.

Another threat to clear communication is that interpretive frameworks can be wrong. People can easily misinterpret you based on their decision to use the wrong interpretive framework. This poses a potential double problem. First, the receiver doesn’t know what you intended to mean and the sender won’t know that their message was interpreted incorrectly.

But have no fear! While miscommunications are far too common in our everyday exchanges, there are ways to reduce the chances of them while at work. Let me offer some advice:

  • The first step in order to maintain smooth communication channels at work is to learn how to communicate. What I mean is that when putting forth information, it’s imperative to be crystal clear about the message. A message that is vague and open ended for interpretation can cause issues. It’s crucial to formulate the message in such a way where there is no room left for doubt.
  • Second, be quick and to the point. In other words, less sometimes is better. Be brief. A long and wordy message has a greater likelihood of confusion.
  • Third, think about the best medium to deliver your message. Is it in a meeting? Is it a simple email? Is it a full-blown conference call?
  • Finally, be sure to listen for feedback. Once a message is sent, don’t sit back and assume the receiver has understood your delivery.

Finally… a  word on the virtual world

Email, text messages, Skype and other forms of virtual communication have opened a Pandora’s box of miscommunication. An electronic intermediary between the sender and receiver poses a potential barrier. This is not necessarily news, but in the workplace where email and virtual messaging is prominent, we are vulnerable to more misinterpretations.

The best advice I can provide in online communication is brevity. Be clear and concise with your message. Often, less is better. In addition, you can take these rules and apply them to your repertoire.