How to prevent communication problems with your co-workers

May 2, 2018

Remember that productive conversation you had with your colleague?

Yes, that one.

The one where you discovered next day that he or she had walked away with a completely different idea to what you thought had been agreed!

Unfortunately we can quite often find ourselves in situations like this where what we believe was clear communication turns out to have been a complete illusion!

And it’s not just spoken communication. Words can be misinterpreted in other forms.

Perhaps you have sent a perfectly innocent email or text, and realised that the email recipient took offence – their interpretation was not your meaning!


What causes communication breakdowns?

In conversations, the words that we hear and their meanings, are all filtered through our own unique context grid which is made up of our strongly held opinions, beliefs, and attitudes which have been shaped and reinforced over a lifetime.  This results in us all unknowingly, putting our own interpretation or spin on the words of others.

Within the work environment, when you are dependent on someone to get a task accomplished, it is essential that you build a relationship with that person that will lead to open task-related communication.


Listening and questioning

Traditional conversations tend to be defined by what we tell rather than by what we ask. What I have learned from all my coaching experience is that building relationships, solving problems, and moving situations forward positively, requires asking the right questions. As Stephen Covey said we need to “listen with the intent to understand, not the intent to reply.”


In order to enhance our relations – and our communications – we need to adopt The ABC of Courageous Conversations; the art of ENQUIRY:

Asking questions to which you may not already know the answer;

Building a relationship based on curiosity and interest in the other person; and

Clarification – seeking clarification so as you understand what is being said.


An objective of every courageous conversation is to enhance the relationship – whether it’s with a work colleague, family member or friend.  With courageous conversations we can connect, communicate and collaborate more effectively at a deep level of understanding.

I’d like you to think for a moment about an important person in your life that you may be avoiding having ‘that’ conversation with, it may be your partner, your work colleague or a friend.

Remember, you and the other person use different context filter grids and working through likely assumptions that may have been made is essential to improving our ability to handle conversations.

All Courageous Conversations starts will self-enquiry, which follows the WOW approach:


What happened

Without an overlay of our assumptions, what actually happened and how does that make you feel?  Who else is it effecting – family/work colleagues?


Own It

How might you have contributed to this situation?  Something you did/did not say or do?


Win-win it for you and the other person

When it’s resolved, what positive implication will it have for you/other person and family or work?

How does it make you feel?  Who else will benefit from this resolution – family/work colleagues?

Once you are clear on where you stand with this issue, is there someone you need to have a courageous conversation with?


Preparing for courageous conversations

Before you begin your courageous conversation bear these tips in mind:


Tip 1 – park your emotions on the shelf. If you are in an emotional state, this is not the time to have the conversation… WAIT.  Instead come from a place of curiosity.

Tip 2 – Have the end in sight. What is it you want to achieve in this conversation?

Tip 3 – Be patient and Listen. Slow the conversation down. And listen. We all like to be heard – really heard. They may well have insights you hadn’t counted on.


Courageous conversations can enhance your working relationship.  Making room for courageous conversations can deepen that connection, communication and collaboration.

Communication is vital in all aspects of work.  When communicating make sure that you are crystal clear.  Where you need to and it’s appropriate, seek clarification that what you meant was actually what was understood! “Let me clarify, I’m not sure I explained well. What did you hear me say?”  Similarly ask for clarification from others if you are not sure you are understanding them fully.

The skill of Enquiry is necessary to facilitate effective collaboration in the working environment. Work colleagues come with a variety of conflicting personalities and styles. . For those is the role of leader or manager, it is needed to create the relationships and the climate that will promote open communication

Getting to a point where everyone in a team can collaborate and work in harmony can be a challenging task. It can take time for everyone to develop the attitudes and skills required. We should always aim to understand as well as be understood. This is why actively encouraging Courageous Conversations and using the art of Enquiry can make such a positive impact on our work relationship and our ability to get the job done.  Learning the skills can of course benefit the rest of our lives outside work as well.


About the author

Karen O’Donnell is from Toastmasters International, a non-profit educational organisation that teaches public speaking and leadership skills through a worldwide network of meeting locations. Headquartered in Rancho Santa Margarita, California, the organisation’s membership exceeds 352,000 in more than 16,400 clubs in 141 countries. Since 1924, Toastmasters International has helped people of all backgrounds become more confident in front of an audience. There are more than 300 clubs in the UK and Ireland with over 7,500 members. To find your local club:  Follow @Toastmasters on Twitter.

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