Most of us are unconscious communicators. Of course, there are times when you have to think about what to say, but most of us merely talk. Such talk is based on many factors; how our parents raised us, our personalities, our first workplace experiences, our friends and many other variables. Improving your communication skills allows you to be a more effective supervisor, leader, customer service rep and salesperson. Let’s focus on some of the most common misconceptions of communication.

1. You can’t not communicate.

We’re always communicating. And it’s much more than merely conversing with one another. If you and I have a meeting and you don’t show up, that’s communication. Your actions speak louder than your words.

2. Open communication is best.

Yeah, when pigs fly. Try telling everyone you meet today the honest bold-faced truth and see how your day goes. When your spouse asks, “Do you think I look fat?” try telling the truth and see how effective you are. The best answer is merely, “What would make you even ask that question?” When presented with a grenade, it’s best to throw it back. Honest communication is not an excuse for stupid communication. Communication should be tactful, helpful and effective. 

3. Words are precise.

Words are not precise. Each and every one of us has a different interpretation of what we hear. For example, your teenage son’s definition of doing a good job of cleaning his room might be a little different than your definition of what a good job looks like. Telling your customer a change order won’t cost “a lot,” may mean a totally different number than what you’re thinking. Be careful using broad words when communicating to employees and customers. People have a tendency to interpret such words into their own terms — and advantage. 

4. Talking and listening.

Talking and listening are just parts of a communication message. The actual tone of how a word is used means much more than the word itself. Body language also sends a very strong message. When you tell your 8-year-old to go to his or her room, he or she may say ok but the tone and body language may say something totally different. 

Symbolic communication can also play a role with the message. How you wear your hair, the clothes you wear, which ear you put your earring in —  all says something about who you are. John Molloy’s “Dress for Success” may have been written in 1975, but many of its messages are true today. People shouldn’t judge you by what you look like; but people do.

5. Critiquing makes you better.

Post-project communication can be risky and has the potential of going sideways quickly. Don’t “should of” and “could of” on people. Focus on future communications rather than the past. It’s much easier and receptive to talk with workers about a project that’s about to be done than discuss what was done wrong. A construction study found that workers were 9 times more likely to be told something bad about what they did on the job rather than something they did right. It’s difficult to not comment about something that was done wrong on the job. That’s why I suggest you have more pre-job and pre-project discussions to discover and address possible obstacles. The work hasn’t started, so it’s a great opportunity to coach people and avoid future problems. 

6. Communicate consistently.

Keep the crux of your message the same but you’ll be more effective by adapting your style of communication with each and every person. Not everyone hears and interprets information the same. Adaptation is key. Some of your employees may have been verbally abused by a critical parent and others are emotional and hardheaded. The same style may not work in each of these cases. You can change your style without changing your message. 

7. Asking “Why?”

Why questions tend to drive you into the problem. Future-focused questions tend to drive into a solution. For example, “Why were you late?” tends to get numerous excuses: “The baby kept me up last night; traffic was bad; I didn’t feel well this morning.”

Instead try what and how questions. “What can we do in the future to ensure you are on time? Send you home without pay, fire you? Help me understand what to do because what we’re doing isn’t working.”

8. Tell it like it is. 

People don’t like to be lectured. Remember how your dad told you he walked 8 miles to school uphill both ways? You just listened until the lecture was over and did what you were going to do anyway. If people have an attitude issue, asking questions will produce much greater results than lecturing. 

Most of us pick up communication practices from our parents. It is startling the day you say something to your own kids and go, “Oh no! I sound just like my dad or mom.”