On a recent coaching call, my client talked about one of his direct reports needing to be more strategic. He was frustrated and felt that this person just didn’t have what it takes to be successful in their role long term. I asked him how he defined “strategic” and whether he had ever discussed this in more depth with his direct report.

I already knew the answer to those questions because my client tends to operate at a very fast pace and assumes that “everyone knows what strategic means.” But everyone doesn’t know what strategic means to him and what that looks like in terms of work performance. Could it be that if he took the time to share what he wants in a “strategic leader” at his organization that he just might find that he already has it?

These types of misunderstandings and miscommunications happen often. We leave a meeting feeling assured that everyone is in agreement and has their next steps and assignments well in hand, only to revisit the very same discussion at the next meeting and realize that much remains unresolved after all. This happens in delegation too. You think you have delegated a project and have that off of your plate, only to find that what you were expecting was not what you received and now it’s back on your plate.

The key to successfully navigating these interactions is to get to shared understanding – to move from “my view and your view” to “our view.” Here are some ways to do that:

  • Share perspectives – Solicit others’ perspectives and share your own. Look for where your perspectives align and where they may conflict. The more information we have, the more likely we can gain understanding and avoid misunderstanding.
  • Uncover what is not being said – Body language is just as important as spoken words when it comes to eliminating misunderstanding. Tuning in to those signals and clues, like facial expressions and body positioning, can provide an opening to inquire about what the person may be feeling but not expressing.
  • Devote needed time – As I suspected with my client, not taking the time to have a complete two-way conversation will inevitably lead to misunderstandings. When it is important and agreement is needed, carve out the necessary time.
  • Ask open-ended questions – Getting to shared understanding requires depth of understanding. Yes or No answers are never enough. Draw out information from others by asking great open-ended questions. For delegation, try “What are the commitments and next steps coming out of this conversation?” For getting buy-in on an idea, ask “What have I missed?” For confirming that you are on the same page, say, “I’d like to know what you see as the agreements we’ve just made.”
  • Get specific on definitions and terms – Words can be meaningless if there is not a common definition among those in conversation. My client believed that “strategic” is a term that is universally understood and yet his direct report was not exhibiting the strategic behaviors he was looking for. Defining “strategic” and what it looks like will reduce misunderstandings in evaluating the employee’s performance.
  • Don’t avoid the uncomfortable things – Often misunderstanding comes from avoidance – avoiding conflict, avoiding critical feedback, avoiding having the tough conversation. We may hope that the situation takes care of itself or that it really doesn’t matter in the grand scheme of things, but that is usually not true. Stepping out of your comfort zone and into a space of uncertainty and discomfort makes it possible to learn more about yourself and others and get to a place of shared understanding.

Misunderstandings happen all the time. There may be times when it’s OK and nothing suffers but, more than likely, unresolved misunderstandings will create tension, build up silos, and lead to lower team and organizational performance. Taking steps to address this issue is part of being a Thoughtful Leader.

Where have you seen misunderstandings impact your team?
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If you enjoyed this post, you can read more like it in our book, The Power of Thoughtful Leadership: 101 Minutes To Being the Leader You Want To Be, available on Amazon.

For additional support in addressing misunderstandings, contact Robyn at rmcleod@chatsworthconsulting.com.

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