Creating communication confusion

It’s all too easy to create communication confusion – and often difficult to work out how or why it happens.

I recently managed to create confusion amongst some work colleagues, and it has left me wondering about how to prevent similar mistakes happening again.

The situation was simple enough. I was due to have a meeting with three colleagues, at the university campus where I work one day a week. But a few hours before the scheduled meeting, I had a phone call from school: I needed to collect my sick child.

The easy solution for me was to shift our meeting to my house, which is quite close by … much better than postponing the meeting or bringing a sick child into the office. My plan was to catch the bus home, collect my child from school, and then meet my colleagues at home later.

Instead of asking a very straightforward question like ‘Can we meet at my house instead of here?’, I approached the question with a little research. I asked questions like ‘Do you have a car here today?’ and ‘Do you have anything scheduled for immediately after our meeting?’ I often work this way: I try to to establish whether my request is feasible first, so that I don’t create a sense of obligation. But the trouble with this system of ‘backing into’ the real question is that it can lead to confusion.

The answers were what I wanted: ‘yes’ to the car, and ‘no’ to the question about other commitments. We went ahead and agreed to shift the meeting to my house.

As I was about to leave, I realised that our understanding of the conversation was different: I expected to catch the bus home and meet the others later, while my colleagues thought that I wanted to be driven to the school. For the person with the car, this meant double driving. And I felt that I had somehow asked for help that I didn’t actually need.

I always put some effort into thinking about how to ask questions. I particularly think about how to order questions so that people understand what is being asked. This time, I got it wrong. I would have been better off just asking a straightforward question, rather that working around my ultimate question as a strategy to prevent a feeling of obligation. I created the obligation, instead of preventing it.