My experience with leading and managing teams has taught me that a lot of friction and frustration are caused by miscommunication. This often happens through that which is not spoken, i.e. through implicit assumptions about what the other means.

In this article I'll shed some light on how miscommunication occurs, show a typical example of it, and give an opinion on the implications (i.e. how should one behave after knowing all this, and how to prevent or fix miscommunication).

Communication usually fails, except by accident

There is a Finnish researcher – Osmo Wiio – who has studied communication. Jason Fried from Basecamp succinctly sums up Osmo's conclusions as "communication usually fails, except by accident". This is because in a conversation with two people, there are actually six participants:

  1. Who you think you are
  2. Who you think the other person is
  3. Who you think the other person thinks you are
  4. Who the other person thinks he/she is
  5. Who the other person thinks you are
  6. Who the other person thinks you think he/she is

So yeah… communication is hard.

Primary vs secondary responses

Another concept that I've come across is that of "primary vs secondary responses" in communications (I can only find sources in Dutch, sorry. Please let me know if you know of an English source). This concept states that there are roughly two kinds of people. Neither are good or bad because both types have their distinct strengths and weaknesses.

A primary person is characterized by responding quickly and always having an answer ready. These people think quickly, come over as energetic, can make decision quickly and often think about the big picture. On the other hand, they can be impulsive, can change their minds quickly, and details (which they don't tend to think about) can bite them later.

A secondary person usually needs more time to think about a conversation. For some it's just five minutes, for others it could be a day. These people often prefer to research all options and to understand all details before they make a decision. But once they're done, they've really thought things through (including details) and they don't change their minds often. These people often have a deeper understanding of a vision than primary people.

I belong more in the second group, so I can emphasize with that group best.

Again: both types have their respective strengths and weaknesses, which may even be situation-dependent. But what's problematic is that misunderstandings between these two types of people cause friction. For example, primary people can interpret the relative slowness of secondary people as incompetence. Secondary people ask for a lot of information, but primary people can interpret that as thwarting or wasting time. On the other hand, secondary people can get annoyed by the constant changes in plans by primary people, or by the lack of details in plans.

I also want to stress that neither types are related to the concept of leaders vs followers. These types are communication and thinking styles. Not all leaders are primary people and not all followers are secondary people. However, the stigma or prejudice that surrounds these types are problematic.

Case study

A typical example of miscommunication that I've seen involves the concepts that I introduced in the previous two sections. There was a coworker who's a hardcore secondary person: he brilliantly analytical and has a deep understanding of all things he's involved with. But he asks a thousand questions and constantly points out problems and weaknesses. I know that he's just doing his job, and that his intentions are good. By pointing out problems he wants to help us avoid them. But other coworkers – who are "less secondary", and who have not had much experience working with him – often got the impression that he's deliberately being difficult, and got annoyed by him. I had to reassure those other coworkers that this guy really does have good intentions.

Another example is a particular primary person that I've worked with. Being in a leadership/management position, it is my responsibility to relay a vision to my team, of which some members are "more secondary" than I am. And because I did not fully understand the vision myself, I had to ask that primary person at least as many questions as the "most secondary" person in my team. The primary person quickly got annoyed by me, thinking that I'm wasting his time with useless questions for which the answer is "obvious".

A little empathy

Okay, so we've concluded that communication is hard, and we now know about two types of people with tend to misunderstand each other. Now what?

My take is that different people are, well, different, and so it's completely normal that they think differently from each other. Every person has their distinct background and experience, which colors all their thought processes. Therefore, it is normal that communication takes time and effort. I think that being frustrated at how the other person doesn't understand you, is a waste of time.

I think the key lies in more empathy and understanding. A lot of friction and miscommunication is just caused by simply not understanding how others may be different from oneself. Even that is understandable: psychological projection is a thing.

If you are frustrated by a conversation, try to redirect your frustrations to something more productive. Think about what implicit assumptions cause your frustration, and question whether they are true. Get to know the other person better and try to be his/her shoes.

Adjust your expectations: I think one should not expect easy communication at all times. I think one should always be open to discussions.

After all, they may have a point, and your combined strength may be stronger than what each of you individually can achieve.

What examples of miscommunication have you encountered? How do you deal with them? Please let me know, e.g. on Twitter.