How to avoid the communication assumption trap: three easy steps

by Betty Lochner on April 8, 2011

Sometimes, even when you think you are communicating clearly, you really aren’t.

Last week I agreed to meet my son, Jaron, half way between his house and mine to deliver his dog, Jager, who had been visiting his old roommate here in Olympia for the week. It worked out because I was leaving on a business trip and could meet on my way through Seattle. We talked about meeting on “the weekend” all week.

On Saturday morning, Jaron called me:

Me: “Hi, are you calling about the meeting time and place for Jager?”

Jaron :“Yeah”.

We proceeded to coordinate the time and place to meet for lunch and the doggie drop.  But, we missed one little, but important, detail.  He assumed we were meeting on Saturday, and I assumed Sunday.

Later that day, I got a phone call from Jaron asking, maybe even demanding, where I was.  I was at lunch with friends.  Then he asked what city I was in. The conversation got really confusing after that.  It turns out that he’s at the designated place at the right time, but a day earlier than me.

Now, I was assuming we were talking about Sunday, because why would I leave on a business trip on a Saturday?  He was assuming Saturday, because that’s the first day of the weekend.

A few minutes after our conversation ended I got this text – For a communication skills expert, you weren’t very clear. Ouch.

The experience reminds me that even though we know better – we don’t always practice clear communication.  I talk about clarifying for understanding in my workshops and reiterate often: don’t make any assumptions when communicating.  Ever.

Here are 3 steps to making sure you don’t get caught in the all too familiar assumption trap:

1. Be specific.

When communicating details, be as specific as possible, and remember to include the where (with details), when, and time. Bad Example: So, we are meeting this weekend at the mall. Good example: So, we are meeting at noon on Saturday in the lobby of Red Robin at the South Center mall.

2.Ask questions.

Don’t assume you both understand the same thing! Ask questions to clarify that you understand what you are both talking about.

3. Repeat.

Repeat back what you’ve just heard or said. Make sure you are on the same page one last time. And, be prepared to take notes or write it down so you reinforce what you’ve heard.

When I called Jaron later and apologized for my part in the confusion, he said – so I’ll see you tomorrow, Sunday, the 27th of March at noon at Little John’s restaurant off of 45th in Seattle.

Yes, you will.

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Betty Lochner is the Owner of Cornerstone Coaching & Training. She specializes in personal and organizational transformation and is the author of  Dancing with Strangers: Communication skills for transforming your life at work and at home. And, it’s now available on Kindle! Check it out.

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