How Often Do You Feel Misunderstood at Work?

By:  Helen M. Thamm, APRN,CPC, Career Success Specialist

     Contrary to popular belief, what you say is really less important than how you say it, and how you look when you say it!  In fact, some say words only account for less than 10% of the message you are trying to send.  People trained to listen on many levels, like those of us who are therapists/coaches, may understand at least a majority of messages correctly as conveyed, most people only get what others are really trying to say about one third of the time!

What are some of the reasons people misunderstand each other?

Like being surprised there aren’t more car accident when you drive in city traffic—during rush hour—many still feel astonished that often they are misunderstood, especially by colleagues even in nursing or other health care professions.  In fairly positive families, many close relatives may understand someone’s individual quirks and/or use their own inside jokes, including facial expressions and body language.  Peers, though, come from varied family systems.

People at work, in addition to coming from diverse family backgrounds may also have culturally influenced communication differences.  For example, many Asian and Native American people avoid eye contact when they interact.  It’s hard to gauge the message for most Americans when you can’t look into someone’s eyes!  In addition, people are all unique.  Some by nature are more serious, while others are bubbly.  Some are thoughtful, quieter, while others are more outspoken.  What sounds funny to one person, may come across as somewhat sarcastic to another.

Examples how some people are misunderstood:

Here are some examples of either neutral or even positive messages being misunderstood:

  1.  Mary, a deep thinker, sat quietly with the ends of her mouth turned slightly down and her brow a bit furrowed in a staff meeting.  She listened intently to the change the boss was instituting.  She had concerns about the repercussions of the decision her boss just made.  He perceived her as being negative, even though she hadn’t said a word!
  2. Sue, is an outspoken person, and Mary’s peer.  In the same meeting, she asked the boss why the change, in her usual somewhat curt way, as she didn’t understand why he made it.  She is a person who believes “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!”.  However, she was perceived as challenging her boss’s authority by him.
  3. Pam, in the room with Mary and Sue during a survey, was asked a direct question that threw her off.  The surveyor asked “what do you like about your job?”  Pam, as was her habit when she was facing a serious challenge, screwed up her face like Mr. Magoo the very short-sighted cartoon character, while she thought of the right thing to say that would sound best for her facility.  Sue jumped in with a positive that Pam agreed with, but later was accused by her boss who was not present at the time, that she “didn’t like her job!”.  So, not only was Pam misunderstood, but the misunderstanding was passed on!

Tips to avoid misunderstandings!

So how can you help avoid misunderstandings?  A good way to help you avoid misunderstanding others is simply to make a comment and then ask a pertinent clarifying

question.  If you are not sure about another’s real message, for example, you can comment:  “You look serious, what are you feeling about . . . ?”  While you can’t control what others perceive, if you notice what seems to be a negative reaction to something you say or do, try asking the person the same question!

People are unique human beings and have diverse perceptions.  Clarifying messages, therefore, is paramount for better relationships and to lessen misunderstandings, especially at work!


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About the Author:  Helen Thamm, APRN, CPC is a licensed nurse therapist in Illinois and Wyoming as well as a Certified Professional Coach, who is a career and wellness specialist. You can obtain free tips on career success and wellness issues at and you can listen to her career success radio series on the Events Page.  Leadership challenges are creatively overcome in her new manager’s success toolkit book:  “How to Manage with a Magic Wand (No, Don’t Hit Your “Problem Employees” over the Head with it!)” and work/life re-balance in the bestseller “The Wellness Code” co-authored with Dr. John Ellis, et al which are available at  Helen can be reached for questions at:


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