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Misunderstandings in writing – is it just a lack of skill?


It is often said that more misunderstandings occur in written communication than by phone or face to face. However is that to do with the medium or people’s lack of skills in writing?

The problem with written communication is that it lacks tonality. So regardless of how good your spelling, punctuation, grammar or general ability to structure sentences, if the person reading the content doesn’t know you very well it can be very easy for the message to be taken the wrong way.

That’s not to say messages in face to face and phone communication can’t be misunderstood, it’s just the probability is higher in the written medium.

The fewer amounts of senses involved in the communication, the more likely it is to be misinterpreted. Face to face for example covers everything, body language, tone, pace, pitch etc.

Pros and cons for all written communication

Written is great where record maintenance is required. I.e. you need to have something on the record. You don’t have to deal with immediate emotional verbal and non-verbal responses. You can take as much time as you want to sculpture your communication, and the receiver will not be able to interrupt you or be distracted by non-verbal communication.

However verbal communication allows for immediate response or discussion, and you can explain what you mean if there's any misinterpretation. Communicating verbally also allows you to gauge the mood of the person to whom you're speaking so you can adjust accordingly.

How to decide – written v’s verbal communication

There are a couple of simple rules I follow to help decide which to use.

1.     If I don't need something to be "on the record", it takes far too long to write, or I feel I have to keep rewriting my message because I don't think it will be understood my advice is to pick up the phone or have a meeting with the person/people.

2.     If your communication is required to "go on the record" but I think someone will take it badly or misinterpret the message then:

a.     I will write it out first

b.    Send it

c.     Pick up the phone or call a meeting to discuss with the person/people to make sure there is no miscommunication.

What other tips have you found helpful in reducing the number of misunderstandings that occur in writing?

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