Personal Instead of Business

When communication blows up due to misinterpretation

Personal Instead of BusinessCommunication is a straightforward activity we engage in daily. Effective, efficient and correctly interpreted communication is needed in the workplace. It facilitates information sharing to create better: performance and decision making; direction of details and requests for clarity; education; and feedback on success with tasks and responsibilities.

Despite the seemingly simple task of communicating, it is not so easily achieved. To be effective, verbal communication has a handful of requirements and the absence of just one can lead to substantial challenges:

  1. Verbal communication includes speaking or listening. The “or” is the key word because these actions are mutually exclusive – a person should only be listening or only be speaking.
  2. Non-verbal communication like body language and facial expressions is part of any interaction and will impact verbal communication.
  3. 100% attention must be given to the conversation in order to be effective. No talking while typing, no listening while reading and no texting while speaking.
  4. As a listener, precise timing and feedback are necessary to confirm accuracy and understanding of messages.

Even with only four basic requirements, communication errors and difficulties occur at an alarming rate. The speaker may be ineffective, the message might be confusing or the listener could miss the intent. This last problem can occur because the listener takes it personally rather than factually.  Too often, when communication goes awry, the listener’s mood and mindset override the speaker’s intention and in its most negative outcome leads to a feeling of personal attack.

A listener, consciously or unconsciously makes a choice about how to interpret every statement. General nature, mood, focus, frame of mind and past experiences can influence that interpretation. While good listeners will return to requirement #4 on confirming accuracy and understanding, some interpretations will be based on mood or mindset:

  • a glass half full or glass half empty nature (optimistic – pessimistic)
  • having a good day or bad day (rational or reactive)
  • the standard frame of reference (open or closed) or
  • past interactions with a person (objective or biased).

These moods and mindsets make business conversations nearly impossible because everything is interpreted as emotionally focused rather than business focused. When employees personalize everything, statements and messages are heard as blame, criticisms and attacks. This can shut communication down because of bad feelings (avoidance or withdrawal) or escalate to conflict because of emotional reactivity (perceived personal attacks).

Some staff members have a tendency to reference their mood and attitude first and put a negative spin on well-intentioned business messages. Reactions of this type are problematic and stressful and create persistent tension in the air because conversations are no longer predictable or comfortable when the speaker is waiting for the listener to react emotionally or over react.

When the personal interpretation trumps the intended message neutral statements are heard as personal slams, slurs or slanders. The reaction is purely emotional and usually inappropriate and confusing. Here are a few examples to show how the intent of a neutral message can be misconstrued as personal and cause problems in the workplace.

Message: The expenses this past month are higher than normal.
Business Reaction:
That is correct. We had our marketing brochures printed for the tradeshow.
Personal Reaction:
The finger is being pointed at me. I am being blamed for spending too much or incurring expenses I shouldn’t have.
Message: It is challenging to find someone in your department when I need them.
Business Reaction:
Our department works closely with many teams throughout the company.
Personal Reaction:
It’s not fair. I am being accused of slacking off and not being available when someone needs me.
Message: The end of the month is coming very quickly.
Business Reaction:
It has been so busy. I can’t believe we have accomplished so much and another month has flown by.
Personal Reaction:
They don’t trust me. I don’t need to be reminded of the date and what is required of me.

If the receiver interprets things on a personal (emotional level), then statements, comments and questions will be translated as pointed, hurtful and accusatory. On the other hand, a performance (behavioural) reaction about tasks, responsibilities and expectations results in business focused conversations for growth, development and improvement.

How can the shift be made to avoid the personal (emotional) and focus on performance (behavioural)? Three methods can be implemented:

  1. Focus on the task or the work.
    The expenses this past month are higher than normal.
    The focus is the expenses (task) not the spender (personal).It is challenging to find someone in your department when I need them.
    The focus is on the department (work) not the availability (personal).The end of the month is coming very quickly.
    The focus is on the timing (work) not the employee’s accomplishments (personal).
  2. Ask questions to confirm the focus is on task or work.
    Is there a problem with the expenses?
    Would you like my help with something?
    Do we need to change our approach for the deadline?
  3. Continue the conversation after intention is confirmed.
    Should we talk about this further?
    Would you like to have the team meet to discuss?
    Is there anything more you need from me?

If you have employees and managers that frequently go down the personal road in conversations rather than staying focused on business, contact us at or 604-349-8660. Let’s create a plan to shift conversations to productive rather than explosive.

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This entry was posted by Pam Paquet and is filed under Business Assertiveness, Employee Training. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.