Identify misunderstandings, improve project communication

It is impossible not to communicate in a project. This does not refer to Paul Watzlawick's first axiom "You cannot not communicate", but to the fact that communication plays a central role in a project. The project manager communicates with clients and customers, the project team communicates with each other, the project manager and the work package managers also communicate: with their team, the sub-project managers, the suppliers, the marketing department, and so on. It is not possible to work in a project without communication - and so far, only verbal communication has been considered, non-verbal communication has been disregarded. Wherever communication takes place, misunderstandings can occur. To prevent these misunderstandings from jeopardising your entire project, this article explains how misunderstandings occur and how you can improve project communication.
A person holds a speech bubble in his hand.


How misunderstandings arise

A misunderstanding is essentially the opposite of an understanding. In a misunderstanding, the sender and receiver of a message misunderstand each other or do not understand each other at all. It can start with a simple question. A team member asks in a meeting, "Where are the sub-distribution plans?" This question is not asked out of annoyance, or as a passive-aggressive way of telling the teammate that you are still waiting for the plans, but simply out of interest in knowing where they are so that you can plan accordingly. The person responsible for the electrical installation has not yet completed the plans because he is still waiting for information from the client and is therefore unable to act himself. He feels attacked by the question, takes it as criticism and replies: "I'm working as fast as I can." In response, the questioner is also angry, both because he has not received an answer to his question and because he has been unfairly attacked by his colleague.

This misunderstanding can lead, in the worst case, to a major conflict as the two communicating parties build up each other.

The four-sided model of psychologist Friedemann Schulz von Thun is interesting in this context. He developed a model which states that every communication has four sides. Every statement can be influenced by the sender in these four aspects and can also be received by the receiver in these four aspects. So, there are many possibilities for misunderstanding. First, there is the level of factual information. This contains the pure facts and information that are communicated at the factual level. If a conversation is just an exchange of technical information for both parties, there is little chance of misunderstanding. Then there is self-revelation, which is a statement in which the sender expresses something about himself. This can be wishes or feelings. The third level is the relationship between the sender and receiver of information. At the relational level, criticism or praise and recognition can be expressed both through the words that are spoken and through facial expressions and gestures. An eye roll or a frown can change the meaning of a sentence. The fourth level is the appeal, when a sender asks a receiver to do something. The receiver feels addressed and obliged to act. The same sentence can be received very differently at the four different levels. 
In the example above, the sender is on the factual level. He wants to know what the plans of the sub-distributors are - without judgement and without expecting anything from his colleague - the receiver. The receiver, on the other hand, feels directly attacked in this scenario and takes the message on the appeal level: he assumes that the sender is asking him to do something. The statement can be perceived even more clearly as an appeal if the sender emphasises his statement in a certain way or underlines it with facial expressions or gestures that he may not even notice, but which are clear signs for the receiver.

How to avoid misunderstandings

Misunderstandings are particularly likely to occur in a team that has not worked together before, or when people with very different communication styles meet, such as in international teams. However, there are ways to prevent or reduce misunderstandings before they become conflicts.

Preventing misunderstandings through an open communication culture

This is where the project manager or executive can and should take action. People need to feel that they can communicate openly without fear of repercussions for telling the truth. This does not mean that people should say everything that comes into their minds without mincing their words, but that they can be honest with their colleagues, but also with their superiors, when it comes to technical matters. Personal matters should be left out of the equation and, of course, diplomacy should be respected. Open communication is important, but it is even more important not to hurt colleagues by telling them things they cannot change or that invade their privacy. Constructive criticism and feedback is encouraged, as is asking frank, sometimes uncomfortable questions (if they relate to the project). At the same time, people need to be taught to treat their colleagues with appreciation and respect. Finding the right balance between openness or honesty and respect can be a challenge in the beginning, but this will come with time, and if it does not, it is possible to improve communication through training.

Training communication skills to prevent misunderstandings

Communication training can have different focuses. Especially in the intercultural field, it can be useful to organise a communication workshop to prepare employees who will be working in international teams for the different forms of communication. Especially when two cultures meet that have very different ways of communicating, preparation is essential to ensure that employees are optimally prepared to work together and to avoid jeopardising the success of the project and the business relationship. In addition to intercultural communication training, there are other topics of fundamental importance. These include active listening, non-verbal, non-violent and virtual communication and emotional intelligence. All of these can help to improve communication and avoid misunderstandings. For teams with escalation potential, conflict management training is also recommended to resolve conflicts that arise from misunderstandings.

Review communication processes

As with many other project management processes, it makes sense to review communication on a regular basis. Particularly if there are a lot of misunderstandings in the team that need to be actively addressed, it makes sense to check at shorter and then longer intervals whether communication has improved or whether there is still room for improvement in one area or another. This can be done, for example, by holding meetings to discuss how well communication is working. Alternatively, feedback forms can be filled in and sent - anonymously if necessary - to the project manager. On this basis, weaknesses can be identified, and solutions worked out.

Improve project communication

Every project manager knows that communication within the project team and with all other project participants is crucial to the success of the project. Well-organised and balanced communication can prevent many misunderstandings, and it is the project manager's job to identify and address misunderstandings in every project team. He should encourage open communication and, if necessary, carry out communication training with his team. They should also regularly check the success of their actions. When good project communication is established, misunderstandings are less likely to occur, and when they do occur, they can be resolved before they escalate with properly learned communication. 
However, misunderstandings are not always negative: a misunderstanding gives you an insight into the other person's way of thinking, you get direct feedback on what you say or express non-verbally, because a misunderstanding is not arbitrary. For example, a misunderstanding may make you realise that you need to speak less technically and more in everyday language, or that crossing your arms is seen as dismissive. You can work on this to avoid misunderstandings for the same reason in the future.

Identify misunderstandings - The IAPM logo
Author: IAPM internal
Keywords: Project management, Misunderstandings, Leadership

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