Business Communications Best Practice 4 – Limit Expanding Ambiguity

StrategyDriven Business Communications Article | Growing UncertaintyWe’re familiar with the childhood game where a verbal message is shared child-to-child around a seated circle and the last person in the chain hears a message completely different than the original oration. We experience this same expanding ambiguity in our business communications. These, however, are not a game and the differences can greatly impact the bottom line. Consequently, the question becomes why do our communications morph and how can these changes be limited?[wcm_restrict plans=”49192, 25542, 25653″]

Expanding Communications Ambiguity

All communications begin with a degree of ambiguity. Poorly chosen words, vague descriptions, inappropriate use of adjectives and adverbs, misused words, and mispronunciations are just a few ways in which the communicator contributes to communications uncertainty. The communications receiver adds another set of ambiguity drivers such as misunderstanding of word definitions, experience-driven distortion of communication meanings, and inappropriate attempts to ‘read between the lines.’ As the communication is passed from sender to receiver to receiver, to receiver, and so on, these ambiguity expanders accumulate and compound one another leading later message receivers at risk of receiving a bogus message. (See Figure 1 for an illustration of this principle.)

Growth of Communication Ambiguity
Figure 1: Growth of Communication Ambiguity

Table 1: Drivers of Communication Ambiguity

Communication Ambiguity

  • Poorly chosen words
  • Vague descriptions
  • Inappropriate use of adjectives and adverbs
  • Misused words
  • Mispronunciations
Reception Ambiguity

  • Misunderstanding of word definitions
  • Experience-driven distortion of communication meanings
  • Inappropriate attempts to ‘read between the lines’
  • Environmental noise
  • Overwhelming number of simultaneous communications to receive

Limiting the Uncertainty

No one can eliminate all communications ambiguities. However, the following practices should be considered when sharing important messages that could result in significantly adverse outcomes:

  • Express the message in writing
  • Use simple words
  • Construct the message at an elementary grade reading level
  • Request repeat-backs to confirm understanding
  • Follow-up to ensure proper understanding/execution
  • Avoid using absolutes and excessive use of adjectives/adverbs
  • Actively listen to recipients’ feedback; checking for biases and adjusting the message accordingly

Final Thought…

There is a significant risk of expanding communications ambiguity when translating messages into different languages. In addition to the uncertainty listed above, translators compound the number of individuals through which the communication must pass and languages don’t tend to translate in a one-for-one basis. Consequently, there is a doubling of the rate in which communication ambiguity grows when translating from one language to another. The best mitigator, in this case, is if the communicator is bilingual and able to translate his or her own message.[/wcm_restrict][wcm_nonmember plans=”49192, 25542, 25653″]

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About the Author

Nathan Ives, StrategyDriven Principal is a StrategyDriven Principal and Host of the StrategyDriven Podcast. For over twenty years, he has served as trusted advisor to executives and managers at dozens of Fortune 500 and smaller companies in the areas of management effectiveness, organizational development, and process improvement. To read Nathan’s complete biography, click here.

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