By Steve Adubato, PhD

I love comic strips. I find them very educational. One of the strips I take some license with and use in my "Stand & Deliver" communication seminar portrays Mary, a busy boss, telling her loyal but overworked assistant the following: "Jim, I need that Jones report ASAP."

Jim responds; "Sure, boss, no problem."

On the surface, this appears to be effective communication:

Message Sent = Message Received.

But there is a problem: In the little clouds that show what each character is really thinking, you see Mary's interpretation: "Great, I've got that meeting with the big brass at 10 a.m. tomorrow. I'll get the Jones report first thing in the morning and read it before the meeting. I'll be fine." But Jim is thinking: "Okay. I've got the Smith report and that other situation the boss has been riding me about. I'll get to the Jones report by tomorrow afternoon."

Mary gets to work the next morning expecting to see the Jones report on her desk. It's not there. She reaches out for Jim. No answer. Mary panics. She finally reaches Jim at 9:20. "Jim, where is that report? I told you I needed it for my meeting at 10!"

A shocked Jim responds: "You never said you needed the Jones report this morning."

"Yes I did," says Mary.

Joe responds nervously; "No you didn't. I had two other projects you told me to take care of. I was going to get to the Jones thing this afternoon."

"This afternoon? That's too late!"

Things are starting to get heated with Mary raising her voice.

"Look Jim. Why didn't you tell me you couldn't get to the Jones report until then? I would have put Johnson on the other two projects or I would have told you to put them aside. You've put me in a bad spot. The meeting is in a few minutes and I promised the guys I would update them in writing." Mary goes to the meeting without the Jones report and gives a weak-sounding excuse. Her bosses aren't pleased. Mary isn't pleased. She feels Jim dropped the ball.

The hard-working Jim feels terrible that Mary took heat from the big brass but also feels she screwed up by not making it clear to him exactly when she needed the report.

This is not a happy workplace.

That's the funny thing about communication. All of us, even those with the best intentions, make mistakes that can have a negative impact on the quality of our lives. Mary's mistake was not to spell out exactly when she needed the Jones report. "As soon as possible" and other ambiguous words or expressions mean different things to different people. Examples include "Not a lot of money" (does that mean $50.00 or $100.00?) and "It isn't far" (does that mean 1 mile or 5?)

Mary should have asked Jim if he had any problem getting the report to her by 9 a.m. She should have clarified which project had priority. She could have offered to re-assign the other projects.

Clearly, as the boss, Mary takes the lion's share of responsibility in this situation. Yet Jim could have said that he was unclear as to exactly what "ASAP" meant. He could have asked which project had the highest priority or told Mary that he was intending to get to the Jones report by the next afternoon. He might have paraphrased what he thought Mary was asking of him ("So what you need is...") allowing Mary to clarify her request.

Sounds easy, right? But, as most of us know, it's not always so easy in real life.

Communication Tip for the Week: Miscommunication happens all the time, at work or at home. Expressions like "ASAP" are open to many interpretations. Use less ambiguous language and clarify any potential misunderstandings up front--before things get out of control. Remember, Message Sent does not always equal Message Received. Anticipate the possibility of miscommunication and utilize practical, common-sense tools to avoid it whenever possible.