“One should aim not at being possible to understand, but at being impossible to misunderstand.”


Have you ever been faced with a situation when you were stating things as simply as possible yet the person you were talking to simply didn’t understand? It happens so often and yet most people are capable of comprehending far more complex language than gets used on a day to day basis. So what’s going on that causes that communications failure?

Well there can be a number of things at play here.

Business Speak

Each business, sector, industry, function and small group has it’s own way of speaking. When one person launches into something pretty basic using language they would use with colleagues or peers they expect a conversation to develop. If they’re with someone who doesn’t know that language then that’s when the problems arise.

I remember talking with a coach who was brought into coaching fast track potentials in a large organisation.  She explained that each and every one of them completely failed to speak in plain language that she could understand. And to make things worse, when she asked them to explain “in plain English” what they were involved in at work, they couldn’t.

It doesn’t take long to pick up the language of the company or sector you are in and take it on as your own. In fact, to do anything else is a quick way to fail. We all do it when we join a new group or company. We have to in order to fit it as much as being able to be understood by our new colleagues.

Not Wanting To Listen

Sometimes we have to recognise that others simply don’t want to hear what we are saying. There can be many reasons for this but in a business sense this has to be picked up quickly in order to avoid issues spreading. Deliberately not listening, not carrying out instructions or miss-interpreting what is said is the start of a slippery slope that needs to be sorted. You have to get to the bottom of this quickly but you have to recognise it’s happening first of all.

That’s why it’s so important if you get any kind of inkling that a conversation isn’t going as it should be that you ask directly for confirmation that the other person has understood what you have said. This isn’t one of those times for a quick “Do you get it?” question that can be answered yes or no. You have to ask the other person to explain back to you what you’ve just said. It might feel cumbersome asking this but if there is doubt in your mind then you have to do it.

Not Hearing

The problem with the language we use, especially in business, is that it often has hidden messages within it. In a similar way to the business speak of groups and professions, we can use emphasis in the words we speak that will get picked up on by some but maybe not others. If it’s picked up on correctly by those you want to get it then that’s fine. If not, then troubles could be ahead. Local terms and phrases will not translate to other areas. English itself is used in different ways around the business world and all speakers of it, especially the English need to be aware of this!

This translates into the written word as well. What might be common usage of words may not come across as you meant it when in an email or letter. When this is in a business sense the ramifications can be serious, causing fledgling relationships to break down or detailed negotiations to stall.

So keep your language plain and simple and recognise just who you are talking to. Check regularly to ensure understanding and that means that you should check that what you have just heard is what was intended. Facial expressions are great for giving away understanding and a lack of it. Use them when you meet people in real life or when calling via Skype. Extra long pauses and silences on phone calls can also be tell tale signs that what you said wasn’t completely understood.

We are all responsible for ensuring what we say is understood, it’s not always down to the other person.

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© Paul Slater and Reflect & Lead, 2015.