Miscommunication in the office leads to a multitude of issues. It can cause inefficiency, hurt feelings, and even lawsuits. By keeping in mind the different conversational tools different individuals use, miscommunication in the workplace (and in subsequent legal disputes) can be mitigated.
Miscommunication: Rapport v. Report Talk
The goal of rapport talk is to establish a connection or build a relationship. The topic of conversation is less important than the connection the conversation fosters between those speaking. The focus of report talk, conversely, is to exchange information or solve problems. Here, the goal of the conversation is to take subsequent action. Assuming the other party’s goal of a conversation can lead to results the parties never intended. A common problem may be as follows:
Individual A is engaging in what they believe to be rapport talk with individual B, and may disclose a complaint they have about another coworker. Individual A simply wanted to feel heard and gain support from Individual B. However, if Individual B assumed that they were engaging in report talk, B may take action and confront the other coworker on behalf of A. This may be upsetting to A even if B was simply trying to help.
At Schaefer Halleen we appreciate that when attorneys are engaging with clients it is important to clarify objectives and provide expectations during conversations. We avoid assuming what a client hopes to get out of an interaction, as we want to ensure our course of action is consistent with a client’s expectations.
Rapport apologies serve as conversation soothers or a means to establish comfort. If a coworker comes into work with a cast on their arm, a person using a rapport apology may say “I’m so sorry that happened to you!” even though they had nothing to do with the incident. This can be a meaningful tool to express concern and build connections among coworkers.
Others may use apologies to take responsibility as opposed to establishing a connection with another individual, and this can lead to confusion when someone else is engaging in rapport apologies. One person may assume an individual is taking responsibility for a mistake when she is simply expressing her concern. Contrarily, someone else may mistakenly view an individual’s lack of apology a cue that she doesn’t care about a bad event that happened.
Indirect vs. Direct Speech and Power Distance
Hedging is a form of indirect speech, meant to soften a conversation. As opposed to saying, “I completely disagree,” one who is hedging may say, “Perhaps we should explore other ideas.” This can lead to miscommunication by putting another person under the impression that what they’re doing is correct, when in fact it is not. Hedging may also include fault-shifting language through terms such as, “maybe I wasn’t clear.”
Though hedging can be a useful way to keep conversations pleasant with coworkers or employers, one can run into danger when utilizing it too often or using it in inappropriate scenarios. Hedging may be misinterpreted as uncertainty, hesitation, or flexibility when it was actually meant to just soften criticism or lighten a conversation.
The Impact of Culture and Gender
Culture and gender can impact these communication styles. Each gender may utilize indirect speech, report and rapport talk, and rapport apologies differently. No forms of these speech are “wrong,” but interpersonal and professional relationships may be hindered if the differences aren’t acknowledged. It is helpful to at least attempt to understand the communication styles each person is using in a given conversation and use that information to ensure productivity and common understanding.
Different cultures utilize indirect and direct speech differently, and this may depend on whether a culture focuses on a high or low power distance. In high power distance cultures, there is deep regard for authority, while low power distance cultures focus on equality and interdependency. Low power distance cultures may question or challenge authority if it doesn’t sit well with them, while someone from a high power distance culture may be more likely to defer to whoever is in charge. The United States is generally seen as a lower power culture.
At Schaefer Halleen, we strive for clarity in all of our communications because we appreciate the difficulties that miscommunications can bring. We work to expand our understanding of the different cultural values and norms and communication styles of our opposing counsel, adverse parties, and even our clients. Understanding these differences helps us to maintain effective and positive relationships with the clients we serve.
We appreciate the contributions in this subject by Professor Nina Meierding of Negotiation and Mediation Training Services in Bainbridge Island, Washington, and Pepperdine University. Special thanks to Nina for the inspiration and information.