How to deal with misunderstandings quickly at work

The Globe and Mail and Morneau Shepell created the Employee Recommended Workplace Award to honour companies that put the health and total well-being of their employees first. Register for the 2020 Employee Recommended Workplace Award at: This series of articles supports the award.

At a team meeting, you shift your attention to a group at the end of the table, where you think you just heard one of your peers say something that left you feeling disrespected. As you start to process the comment, you wonder why someone would say something like that. There are several people around, so you decide not to say or do anything at that moment. You feel hurt and wronged, and leave the meeting not sure what to do next.

This is a classic example of what could simply be a misunderstanding. As human beings, our communication is imperfect and the time we tune into a communication can influence the way we interpret it.

This micro skill focuses on miscommunication. When not addressed quickly, a misunderstanding can fester and turn into something that can result in acts of incivility, such as rudeness.


A misunderstanding is often due to an absence of facts, or miscommunication around intentions.

One challenge with many misunderstandings is only one party is aware. In the above example, you may have become upset, while the other person doesn’t know it nor why you seem to be behaving differently around them.

A misunderstanding involves absence of facts and clarity on intentions. Often, when facts and intentions are clarified the misunderstanding can be resolved through open, safe and honest two-way communications.


To reduce the number of misunderstandings we may experience or the length of time we may feel hurt by a miscommunication, we must accept what we can control: our behaviour. As well, we need to be open to the possibility that we may not have all the facts and intentions before getting upset.

To deal with what may be a simple misunderstanding we must seek to understand and gain clarity before forming judgment or becoming defensive.

In the above example, when appropriate, simply ask the person in a non-threatening manner something like, “In the team meeting today, I thought I heard you say X. Did I hear you right?”

Many times, people who are experiencing a misunderstanding avoid a conflict, where both parties could be aware there is an issue. The positive aspect of conflict is that both parties are aware, and resolving it requires both to be willing.

One effective way to deal with a misunderstanding is to not jump to negative conclusions and to keep an open mind to the possibility that what you heard or think may be wrong and can be explained by quickly seeking clarification.

Coaching tips for dealing with a misunderstanding:

Before confronting a situation to deal with a misunderstanding, it’s important to have your emotions under control and not to confront someone when you’re emotionally hot. Wait until you calm down before seeking clarification.

This may mean waiting for the right time and place where you both have privacy and there are no additional stressors, such as people watching, that may make the situation more stressful than it needs to be.

It’s also helpful to have the right mindset and to be open to accept different meanings. Sometimes it may not be the message; it may be a personality difference. This is why it’s helpful to listen carefully to the message and intentions. As well, when you’re listening, be open to potential learnings and feedback that may change your perspective.

Ask for clarification – If you heard something, or believe you have reason to think you’re being wronged by another person, don’t assume they’re trying to hurt you. Begin with openness and a willingness to quickly seek clarification to curb your misunderstanding. Be specific, and don’t add fillers on what you think you heard. In an open and non-threatening way seek clarification, by sharing your facts with what you think you heard with the person. This gives them a chance to fill in any blanks and to clarity what they meant.
Verify intentions – Listen carefully to how they respond to your request for clarification. This will help you understand their intentions. It can open the possibility of a deeper conversation that can be beneficial to both parties.
Move past misunderstanding – Moving past a misunderstanding can vary from realizing it was a simple error and there’s no further concern, to a conflict that requires more action and attention to move forward. Conflict resolution is another micro skill.
Read about the 2019 winners of the award and watch a video from the winners here. You can also purchase the benchmark report that outlines findings from 2018 at this link.




Bill Howatt is the founder of Howatt HR Consulting and a co-creator of the Employee Recommended Workplace Award.

#workplace #teamplayer #communications #miscommunication #feedback #conflict #conflictresolution

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