Miscommunications ... and how to recover

Matthew Heusser's picture

Last time I took a swing at the huge and treacherous territory of communications.

Today I'll take another swing, at miscommunications, starting with an actual story of a recent phone conversation:

Matt: You know, I've known about BigCo for a long time. We've never worked together, but among the large test consulting companies, they have a reputation for treating staff and clients well and keeping their promises. And, dare I say it, among large test consulting companies, that is a rare thing. In fact, I talked to one of your representatives just last year at STARWest; it was a good conversation.

Other Person: That is not possible! I didn't go to STARWest, and I didn't even work for BigCo back then!

The conversation that followed was borderline physically painful. Everything I said, the other person pushed back aggressively.

What just happened?

It quickly became clear to me that the person on the other end of the line misheard me, believing me to have said that we met at STARWest. Perhaps the cell coverage dropped at just the wrong split-second, I am not sure. 

The thing is, within two minutes of meeting me on the phone, he thinks I am liar, or, at the very least, someone to "take with a grain of salt."

I spent the next ten minutes trying to build rapport, but the damage was done. Ten minutes in, the conversation felt a bit like a pissing competition - where each side is trying to one-up the other.

In the space of two months, this happened a couple of times. The first time, I was discussing the history of a company (they had made, and let go, a bad hire) to someone very familiar with that company's history a few years later. He jumped to the conclusion I was insulting a friend, who had left (I wasn't), and again I had to backtrack.

Same effect. The person categorically denies something I never said ("Bob Smith is my friend!"), I said "wait, what? No, I'm not talking about Bob. Bob was great. Bob was hired to replace someone who didn't fit in, whose name I've been trying to avoid using ..."

It got worse from there.

Here's the thing: Once the person identified me as an enemy, the trust switch was flipped. Flipping it back isn't as easy as simple explanation.

Your Brain At Work

David Rock's Book "Your Brain At Work" is a Goldmine for testers, but here's just one nugget for today: The human mind is really only good at working on one problem at a time. So if you are in a meeting and working to solve a problem, that is good. If you don't trust the other people in the room, and you are thinking politically, trying to solve the problem, and trying to protect your ass[ets] at the same time -- well, unless you are a very savvy political operator, you are likely to do all three poorly.

In the case of the two stories above, I tried to clarify my statements, several times, and seemed like I had ... but then later in the conversation both indicated that they hadn't really heard me, or else the clarification hadn't really sunk in. 

It is awfully hard to have a meaningful dialogue with someone who thinks you are lying to them.

In his book, Rock gets into why this might be, in the idea of ancient tribes that were safe when together but unsafe when an outsider arrives, all competing for scarce resources. When you do something to indicate you are from a different tribe, a switch gets flipped, and it can be awfully hard to flip it back.

Now think for a minute out our role as testers. We find bugs, right? Even with the best of intentions, done the best way, we can make people look back. Even on the most high-performance team, a tester could trigger someone's "not from my tribe" reflex, just by doing their job well, couldn't they?

You can tell this is happening when people stop replying to what you are actually saying, and begin to reply to the threat they perceive you to be.

Getting Past the Pissing Match

A conversation about the weather, a handshake, some common rapport before we delve into business, all of those things can help us prevent mis-communication. Sometimes, though, it is as simple as the other person misheard you.

What can you do?

Here are a few to think about.

(1) Break Off and Reboot. Find a way to politely end the conversation. In a few days, use a different medium to start again. If the conversation was email, make a phone call. If it was the phone, try face to face. If face-to-face, try IM. The idea is to disconnect the memory. When you reconnect, talk about something else, something you have shared ground on.

(2) Mirror. Between now and the reboot, consider the communication style the other person uses. Do they speak quickly? Slowly? Use a lot of metaphors? Think about how they communicate - do they draw pictures? Do they like to think with their fingers, exploring software during a demo?  Try to get your communication style to match.

(3) Notice "hot buttons." If people don't like a certain term, you are unlikely to make them start liking that term. You might, however, use a different term they do not dislike.

Noticing hot buttons, of course, cuts both ways - we can notice our own and be forthright about them.

Years ago, a programmer told me that he disliked it when we used the term "bug" for defect, especially if it was something we discovered late that no one thought of up front. "When you guys say bug, I think 'Programmer Screwed Up'", he explained "And we have management coming in and out of here all the time. When they hear that, they probably think that too. Can you use a different term?"

It took a large amount of courage and maturity for that programmer to come up and tell me that. He probably had to overcome the tribal instinct. It was honest, it was vulnerable.

His name is Jon, and today I still count him as a friend.

When faced with miscommunication, we could do well to follow his example.

User Comments

damian synadinos's picture

Good post!


I’ve experienced this myself.  My initial communication with one individual went very poorly.  To resolve it and attempt to avoid future miscommunications, I did almost exactly as you suggested, with one minor change:  instead of “disconnecting the memory”, I “addressed the memory” (the miscommunication), head-on.


After carefully and completely analyzing the initial communication, I was able to determine what (I thought) went wrong, and why. The analysis showed that the miscommunication likely wasn’t any due to any fundamental differences, but instead was due to common, simple, and correctable communication errors.


I then “used a different medium” to re-contact with the individual and present the results of my analysis. 


The individual, being a logical and reasonable fellow, agreed with my analysis, and we decided to “reboot” our relationship.  Interestingly, the entire experience turned out to be a valuable learning opportunity.  And, since then…since we were able to recognize, adjust, and avoid further communication errors…our relationship and communication has vastly improved!

April 24, 2014 - 10:25am
Patrick Higgins's picture

This is a great article.... This is something my current company has been discussing a lot lately. I find with our developers it is very important to use the verbage they are most comfortable with. In my experience if you do have a situtation go bad like that it is best to have a cool off period and come back for a face to face "clear the air" meeting. Usually if both parties are adults about the situation you can clear up the miscommunication and move on quickly. 

April 24, 2014 - 3:33pm