How to Prevent Poor Communication Holding Back Your Business

By Karen O’Donnell, Toastmasters International.

The single biggest problem in Communication… is the illusion that is has taken place. (George Bernard Shaw)


In business the illusion of communication can waste time and risks creating long-term problems. Frequently we experience miscommunication where part of the information is lost or misunderstood by the other person.  We might think that communication has occurred, but in actuality, it has not. In a business meeting both parties may think they understand what has been passed between them, but the ideas they take away are different. This is where the illusion of communication can be most damaging.


Have you ever been on the receiving end of someone misinterpreting your words? Have you ever been at a meeting with your colleagues only to realise afterwards that their interpretation of that meeting is very different to yours? Perhaps you have sent a perfectly innocent email or text, and realised that the email recipient took offence – their interpretation was not your meaning! Being misunderstood happens more frequently at work than perhaps we are aware of – and can often lead to wasted time and increased costs.


What goes wrong?


In conversations, the words that we hear and their meanings, are all filtered through our own unique context grid which is made up of our strongly held opinions, beliefs, and attitudes which have been shaped and reinforced over a lifetime.  This results in us all unknowingly, putting our own interpretation or spin on the words of others.  Often, this results in words being misunderstood, meaning getting misinterpreted, feelings getting hurt and potentially people walking away from business opportunities.


In your own business when you are dependent on someone to get a task accomplished, it is essential that you build a relationship with colleagues that will lead to open task-related communication.


Listen with the intent to understand, not the intent to reply. Stephen Covey


Traditional conversations tend to be defined by what we tell rather than by what we ask. Yet all my coaching experience has taught me that what builds a relationship, what solves problems, and what moves situations forward, is asking the right questions.


In order to enhance our relations – and our communications – we need to adopt The ABC of Courageous Conversations; the art of ENQUIRY:

Asking questions to which you may not already know the answer;

Building a relationship based on curiosity and interest in the other person; and

Clarification – seeking clarification so as you understand what is being said.


An objective of every courageous conversation is to enhance the relationship – whether it’s with a work colleague, family member or friend.  With courageous conversations we can connect, communicate and collaborate more effectively at a deep level of understanding.


All Courageous Conversations starts will self-enquiry, which follows the WOW approach:


What happened

Without an overlay of our assumptions, what actually happened and how does that make you feel?  Who else is it effecting – family/work colleagues/business contacts?


Own It

How might you have contributed to this situation?  Something you did/did not say or do?


Win-win it for you and the other person

When it’s resolved, what positive implication will it have for you/other person and family or work?


How does it make you feel?  Who else will benefit from this resolution – family/work colleagues/business contacts?


Once you are clear on where you stand with this issue, is there someone you need to have a courageous conversation with? Is there anyone who can influence the desired outcome?


Before you start your courageous conversation with this person, do bear the following in mind:


Tip 1 – park your emotions on the shelf. If you are in an emotional state, this is not the time to have the conversation… WAIT.  Instead come from a place of curiosity.


Tip 2 – Have the end in sight. What is it you want to achieve in this conversation?


Tip 3 – Be patient and Listen. Slow the conversation down. And listen. We all like to be heard – really heard. They may well have insights you hadn’t counted on.


Courageous conversations can enhance your working relationship.  Making room for courageous conversations can deepen that connection, communication and collaboration.


Communication is vital in all aspects of work.  When communicating – not only in presentations but on a day-to-day basis with work colleagues, be crystal clear.  Where it is appropriate, seek clarification that what you meant was actually what was understood! “Let me clarify, I’m not sure I explained well. What did you hear me say?”


The skill of Enquiry is necessary to identify needs for collaboration among interdependent work units and to facilitate such collaboration. In the role of leader or manager, it is needed to create the relationships and the climate that will promote open communication.


Aiming to understand as well as to be understood can only bring business benefits!





Karen O’Donnell is from Toastmasters International, a non-profit educational organisation that teaches public speaking and leadership skills through a worldwide network of meeting locations. Headquartered in Rancho Santa Margarita, California, the organisation’s membership exceeds 352,000 in more than 16,400 clubs in 141 countries. Since 1924, Toastmasters International has helped people of all backgrounds become more confident in front of an audience. There are more than 300 clubs in the UK and Ireland with over 7,500 members. To find your local club:  Follow @Toastmasters on Twitter.