Avoiding Common Communication Mistakes

See also: Conversational Skills

Communication is a huge part of our world. To get on in life, you must be able to communicate effectively. This section of SkillsYouNeed contains plenty of information about what to do when you communicate: how to listen effectively, how to speak effectively, and the importance of non-verbal communication.

It is important to know what to do to communicate effectively. However, it is also important to know what not to do: that is, what behaviours and activities to avoid.

This page explains some of the common mistakes in communication, which usually lead to misunderstandings or miscommunications, and how to avoid them.

Common Mistakes in Communication

There are many ways to make mistakes when communicating. This is not a complete list. However, it includes many of the most common mistakes in common situations.

1. Taking a one-size-fits-all approach

It is tempting to think that you’ve ‘got’ communication skills. You know how to listen, you know how to speak effectively. What could go wrong?

The answer is that communication is a two-way process.

In other words, there is no one size fits all. You need to change how you communicate to fit the person or group in front of you—and when communicating with a group, you may need to consider several different approaches to get your message across to everyone.

2. Letting your emotions take control

Communication is, of course, partly emotional—and communicating your emotions is important.

However, it is equally important to ensure that you don’t allow your emotions to take control of your communication.

In other words, don’t simply react emotionally to what you are hearing. Take a moment to reflect and respond thoughtfully, as well as emotionally. This is particularly important when your main emotion in the moment is anger. Words spoken in anger are seldom forgotten, even if forgiven.

There is more about this in our pages on Anger and Anger Management.

3. Failing to pay attention to tone

There are two aspects to this.

First, the actual tone of your voice. Your non-verbal communication, which includes your voice itself, can give away a great deal of information about your feelings. For example, a sharp tone often betrays impatience, and can sound very dismissive.

You can avoid this by simply taking a deep breath before speaking, to give yourself time to respond more reflectively.

Second, we may well hear someone described as ‘tone deaf’. This has a specific meaning in music. In more general communication, however, it means that they say the wrong thing at the wrong time, or in the wrong way. This can be both in writing, and in speech, or even in text messaging.

There is a useful rule here. If you are ever tempted to preface what you are saying with, “Well, anyway…”, it may be inappropriate.

Just stop a moment, and consider whether you would like to hear what you are going say, right now. Then just don’t say it.

4. Avoiding difficult conversations

Nobody likes having difficult conversations. Nobody wants to tell anyone that they have been made redundant, or that their performance is inadequate, or that their personal hygiene needs attention.

However, it is almost always best to have these conversations—and that does mean conversations, not telling someone by email or text.

Nothing like this is ever improved by being left for longer, or not communicated face-to-face.

There is more about how to handle difficult conversations in our page on Communication in Difficult Situations.

5. Not being prepared to speak up about your own wants and needs

It is important to be respectful of the needs of others. However, it is also important to be prepared to speak up about what you want and need.

If you don’t do this, nobody will know about your needs, and will find them very difficult to respect.

This may mean learning to be more assertive, and there is more about how to do this in our pages on Assertiveness.

6. Not having an open mind

Unfortunately, it is all too easy to close your mind to others.

The so-called ‘echo chamber’ effect of social media means that we tend to hear our own views amplified and echoed back to us. This also tends to happen within groups of friends—because those with very different views tend to go elsewhere.

However, it is important to open your mind to diversity. Everyone is different—and diversity strengthens both teams and workplaces. It also enriches everyone’s life.

Variety is the very spice of life, that gives it all its flavour

William Cowper, The Task

There is more about the importance of diversity in our page on Diversity in Teams and Groups.

7. Speaking more than you listen

It is worth saying again: communication is a two-way process.

Especially as people become more senior in organisations—or even just older—they tend to assume, often unconsciously, that their opinions, and the information they wish to impart, are more important.

They forget that other people also have important information to communicate.

It is always wise to listen more than you speak.

There is more about improving how you listen in our pages on Listening Skills.

8. Not checking that you have been understood

It is essential to check back with your listener(s) to ensure that your message has been understood.

Once again: communication is a two-way process.

If your message is not heard and understood, it will not be acted upon.

Take time to check that your audience has understood. Encourage them to use techniques like clarification and checking to demonstrate that understanding. Above all, be open to questions, and consider giving your answer in different terms from your original message.

9. Failing to check that you have understood

The other side of the coin is that it is vital to check that you have correctly understood other people’s meaning.

Techniques like reflection enable you to show the speaker what you have heard, including any emotional undertones. Effective questioning can uncover any hidden areas of potential misunderstanding, and is an important way to clarify your understanding.

Mastering these skills will help ensure that you do your part to avoid any misunderstandings.

10. Interrupting other people

We have almost certainly all done it—but interrupting someone else is both rude and dismissive.

It tells other people that you value your opinion or words more highly than theirs. Alternatively, they may hear that you already believe you know what they are going to say—which is usually wrong.

There are, of course, people who seem to think that they have the right to speak endlessly, without letting you get a word in. In this case, it is reasonable to wait until they draw breath, and then jump in. This is especially true if you are chairing a meeting in which this is happening—and then it is worth highlighting that they have taken a lot of ‘air-time’.

However, we are not really talking about this here, but simply interrupting and talking over people before they have had a chance to make their point. In this case, just don’t.

Improving Communication

These common mistakes can all get in the way of communication, and hinder the successful transfer of messages between you and others.

Avoiding them will help you to improve your communication—and that can only be good.