A huge amount of time and energy can be wasted in companies through misunderstandings. They cause blockages and delays because they create frustration and possibly resentment, and if left to fester over time they become chronic problems. Misunderstandings are poison when it comes to creating smooth workflow. So what can we do about it?
Before we burn bridges…
As Seth Godin rightly points out in his blog post ‘Is It Possible There Was a Misunderstanding?‘, misunderstandings can be internal but also with a client and a vendor. In other words, they can infect the entire ecosystem we work in. Reacting the wrong way can be destructive.
But before we burn down bridges and ruin everyone’s day, just a quick moment to wonder, “what if there was something misunderstood?”
It’s a lot easier to ask than it is to go to all the trouble of breaking things.
A Practical Tool for Overcoming Misunderstandings
Godin makes a great point, but the question then becomes, how do we do it? If there is a misunderstanding, then it’s highly unlikely that we can overcome it just by asking if there is one.
Fortunately, there is a very powerful tool from the Theory of Constraints that helps us work through a misunderstanding step by step.
The reason why misunderstandings occur is because there is a problem of perception. Somebody perceives a situation or problem in a certain way that is different to the way another person perceives it. Why? Because we all make assumptions, based on our own personal mental models and biases. This is inevitable. Very often these assumptions and biases remain unverbalized. So we need a way to systematically surface the assumptions we make and get them out into the open. As long as there is a common goal we can then work towards ironing out the misunderstanding.
But I thought you meant…
When a problem occurs and there appears to be a breakdown in communication, the first thing to do is not to walk off in a huff, give up or seethe silently while deciding to be passive aggressive. There has to be an active attempt to clear the air. So step back, and reframe the situation so it can be worked on.
A method for this is to frame the misunderstanding as a conflict, or two opposing positions. Once the positions are verbalized we need to think hard about what the legitimate needs are that are prompting the persons to adopt their opposing positions, and then verbalize the goal that is common to the two needs ( legitimate needs are never in conflict, only the positions adopted are in conflict).
Once these 5 basic building blocks are verbalized (2 positions, 2 needs and common goal) then the work can begin to dig out the assumptions (mental models) that lie under the surface and create the conflict. (See Thinking Process Tools)
It will become clear that there are certain assumptions that can be challenged and invalidated because they are simply lazy thinking or knee-jerk reactions that need to be revisited. Challenging these assumptions in a non-judgemental and collaborative way is what creates the space for breakthroughs and innovative thinking.
Everything is connected
If working together initially is not an option, then one person involved in the misunderstanding can take the task on, make a sincere and empathetic attempt to understand the other person’s position and then present the ‘conflict cloud’ to the other person so they can work on it together.
Working through a conflict in this way is a highly positive way to collaborate on any problem. It completely acknowledges the rights of people to differing opinions while keeping front and centre the priority of finding a win-win solution to a common goal.
Once again, as with all things in ‘The Theory of Constraints’, this is not a ‘technique’. It is a powerful tool that strengthens our ability to think systemically, reflecting a worldview based on unity and a growth mindset. We can always improve our interdependencies. We can always collaborate better. And we’re going to need to.
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About the Author
Angela Montgomery Ph.D. is Partner and Co-founder of Intelligent Management, founded by Dr. Domenico Lepore. She is co-author with Dr. Domenico Lepore and Dr. Giovanni Siepe of ‘Quality, Involvement, Flow: The Systemic Organization’ from CRC Press, New York. Angela’s new business novel+ website The Human Constraint looks at how the Deming approach and the Theory of Constraints can create the organization of the future, based on collaboration, network and social innovation.