You’re a business owner. And you know it’s hard to become a successful business owner without some degree of leadership and communication skills. So you figure that your communication skills—they’re juuuuuust fine. All those blog posts about communication mistakes that business owners make—surely they’re not for you.
Then, one day, a miscommunication leads to a small crisis, and in reading old emails and talking to colleagues, you discover that your communication (or lack thereof) was at the heart of causing the problem.
Turns out that even being a business owner doesn’t make you immune from the occasional breakdown in communication. As a leader, it’s your responsibility to raise the standards of your ability to express yourself. And you can start by avoiding the following mistakes:
1. The “Low Standards” Mistake: Solving Simple Laziness
Napoleon Bonaparte was a general, so his life often depended on the ability to communicate effectively. He needed to write orders with clarity and directness. His advice to generals? Orders shouldn’t only be easy to understand; they should be impossible to misunderstand.
The distinction isn’t as subtle as you might think: Bonaparte believed that if an order could be misunderstood, it would be misunderstood. He knew that he couldn’t be there in person to ensure that every order was perfectly understood by his generals and lieutenants, so he made sure his orders were up to the highest standards in clarity.
In the digital age, we’re all like little versions of Napoleon, shooting off emails and text messages like military orders written on parchment. So how do you mimic Napoleon’s direct “impossible to misunderstand” style?
Communicate in specific terms—with numbers, when possible. Napoleon had to tell his generals “go to this specific location. Take five hundred men with you.” Numbers, locations, dates, times—they’re all essential. Don’t write open-ended emails subject to interpretation. “What time works best for you?” is not good communication. “Let’s talk on the phone at 1 p.m. on Monday, November 10th” is.
Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity. How simple? As simple as possible. The longer your sentences, the bigger your paragraphs, the more your meetings drag on and on, the less people are going to remember about what you said. Alfred Hitchcock, a man who had spent his years communicating to Hollywood stars, cinematographers, editors, and studio executives, gave the simplest award speech ever.
2. The “Assumption” Mistake: Failing to Follow Up and Confirm Comprehension
Let’s draw some more wisdom from military history. Ever notice that an order isn’t complete until the recipient of the order acknowledges and even repeats the order? You might hear something like this on a submarine:
“Bring us up to periscope depth.”
“Up to periscope depth, aye, aye, sir.”
Failing to follow up is one of the key mistakes entrepreneurs make because they figure they’re too busy. But no one’s too busy for good communication. Get your employees in the habit of responding that they understood your instructions, and make sure to follow up in your networking opportunities as well—sometimes, it’s not just good communication, but good social etiquette.
3. The Avoidance Mistake: Failing to Be Direct and Upfront
In many ways, the digital age has worsened our ability to communicate.
After all, we can construct a web of text messages, emails, unanswered voicemails that makes it even more difficult to reach us than it was before the information revolution. These media have made it possible for us to avoid the hard meetings and direct person-to-person contact that used to be a hallmark of doing business in America.
But the principles of effective communication still hold true. That’s why it’s so important not to run from confrontation. Instead, be willing to take on the tough conversations—in person, if possible. When you’re speaking to someone in person, don’t skirt around an issue hoping that they’ll figure out what you’re trying to say. Don’t be rude, but do be direct and clear about any problems you need to address.
And most of all, cut down on these typical avoidance habits:
Letting important phone calls go to voicemail. If there’s something you can handle right now, why not do it? Playing phone tag is not a good way to have a conversation.
Descending down the hierarchy of communication. What do we mean by this? When someone tells you something face to face, don’t respond to them in an email. When someone gives your phone a ring, don’t text them back. Don’t use technology as a crutch to avoid confrontation.
In the long run, the habit of being direct and upfront will save you a lot of headaches simply because it forces you to tackle problems head-on and embrace situations that will serve as practice for your communication skills. If nothing else, it’s good to use a little lesson in how to be direct.
4. The Hearing Aid Mistake: Not Clarifying Someone’s Meaning
Have you ever had a conversation with someone who wears a hearing aid? Oftentimes, you get the sense that they still don’t get what you mean even after they say “what?” a few times. But they’ll give up. They’ll say “okay,” and proceed to mentally check out of the conversation.
That’s not the kind of listener you should be.
Instead, don’t be afraid to keep asking someone “What?” Yes, it’s an embarrassing situation—but it’s better to be clear about what you’re hearing than never to double-check. Think of it this way: if someone is saying something you don’t understand, would you rather nod and then ask questions about it later or have the assertiveness to clear the air right away?
Communication isn’t all about expression, after all. It’s also about the ability to receive the messages that are being sent to you. If you need a clarification, ask for it.
Want to avoid being embarrassed by asking “what?” or “I don’t know what that means”? Then follow a few simple rules:
Rephrase your question each time. Yes, it’s embarrassing if you keep saying “What?” because you can’t hear someone. So rephrase it. Say “What?” Then say “I’m sorry, my ears must be clogged—could you repeat that for me?” And if you’re still struggling, laugh it off. “You know, I know I should see an ear specialist, but I’m going to need that just one more time.” It’s polite, humorous, and ensures that you’re getting someone’s true meaning.
Ask to clarify immediately. If you’re in a meeting and someone speaks in advanced jargon that’s above your paygrade, don’t be afraid to admit your ignorance. Simply do it with a little social grace. Say “You said XYZ—could you bring me up to speed on that? I just want to be sure I’m not missing anything.” People are usually happy to clarify when they know you’re giving the effort to fully listen.
And that’s at the heart of it—being an effective listener as well as speaker. Communication is a two-way street, after all, and any entrepreneur will tell you that employees need to be heard just as much as they need clear directions and honest, straightforward communication.
What communication mistakes have you made? Which ones do you try to avoid?