In your role as a leader, you will eventually find yourself in the middle of a conflict caused by a miscommunication of one kind or another. Maybe you have already had this experience. If you haven’t, hold on, it’s coming.
In these situations, it’s incredibly tempting to get lost in the process of figuring out how the miscommunication happened, where it started, how it could have been handled better, and who contributed the most to the communication break-down. The conversation about how the miscommunication happened can trump the real issue at stake – how do you fix it and get back to business. It can become a witch hunt looking for the most-guilty party rather than an opportunity to improve your relationship. If that happens, you will likely lock yourself in an escalating conflict with little hope for resolution.
One of the things I’ve noticed about these situations is that the longer you talk, the higher the probability that you’ll drift down the negative trail rather than fix the situation and get back to work. To counter this tendency, I encourage you to master two different types of two-word phrases for getting the miscommunication handled and moving towards resolution. The first ones go something like…
- I’m sorry.
- My mistake.
- My fault.
- My problem.
- My error.
I could go on with the list, and I think the point is clear. Accept responsibility for the situation so that you take blame out of the discussion. When you take blame out of the conversation, it gets easier to solve the problem.
Some people will say: “What if the miscommunication wasn’t my fault?” I would say that I rarely see a miscommunication that is completely one-sided. By that I mean that when two people misunderstand each other, it is rarely 100% either person’s fault. Both people played a part in the break down, and either person can accept the responsibility in order to move out of blame and into action.
Just accept your contribution to the issue so that you can get to one of the second two-word phrases…
- Now what?
- What’s next?
The key to moving forward in conflict is to move forward. Focus on the future. Get out of past-based, historical conversations. Other than helping you realize that a mistake was made and how to improve in the future, there’s very little value in discussing what has already happened. Talking about the past beyond the point where you realize that a miscommunication happened won’t do much to help your future relationship with the other person.
Explaining your intent, helping the other person see how they misinterpreted you, explaining how you understood them and other efforts to correct the past can offer some limited benefit to mitigating hurt feelings and misinterpretations. And, the most powerful thing you can do is to stop talking about the past and shift your attention to the future. Rather than focus on what has happened, focus on accepting the current situation and talking about how you will improve things from this point forward.
Because I come from an engineering background with experience in the Nuclear Navy Submarine service and the Chemical industry, I can hear some people saying: “What about the value of doing root cause analysis and working to find the ultimate source of the error?”
In the context of avoiding future problems with airplanes, chemical process equipment, and nuclear power plants, root cause analysis is a great idea.
In the context of personal and professional relationships and building your leadership influence, there’s practically no value in root cause analysis of miscommunications. Those efforts tend to lead to blame and fault-finding rather than to positive action that allow us to continue working together.
When you find yourself in a conflict caused by a miscommunication, practice combining the starting two-word phrases with one of the second two-word phrases for a statement that goes something like this…
I’m sorry. Now what?
When you master these simple phrases and resist the urge to add extra, self-justifying words, you’ll be closer to mastering the art of resolving conflicts caused by simple miscommunication.