Effective communication is paramount to building and maintaining relationships with stakeholders. Whether you’re dealing with clients, customers, coworkers, or companies, failing to get the message across can be a costly mistake. 

In one study of 400 organizations with 10,000 employees each, communication blunders were responsible for an average annual loss of $62.4 million. Companies with 100 employees fared no better, losing an average of $420,000 per year for the same reason. Where did they go wrong? 

Understanding why miscommunications and misunderstandings occur will help you prevent them from happening. The following are eight causes to consider. 

Word Choice

If you’re a software developer, terms like API, CMS, CRM, and FTP are part of your vocabulary. But to anyone else, they’re just a bunch of letters. Some legal documents are filled with technical language called legalese. The words are often complex and confusing enough that people hire lawyers to interpret the information. 

Acronyms, jargon, and buzzwords are used within their respective circles to communicate quickly and efficiently. However, they can have the opposite effect with outsiders, which is why you need to adjust your word choice. 

Competitive Conversation

A surefire way to make any conversation less productive is to ignore the speaker and focus on what you’re going to say next. Your attention is on your argument, which can prevent you from understanding the other side, and changing your stance on the issue may require losing face. 

Here are some examples that highlight how common the counterproductive phenomenon is: 


  • One-Up: A story is told, and instead of it being acknowledged, the listener tries to tell a more extravagant tale. 
  • Waiting to Speak: Thinking about jumping in and having your say while someone is speaking. 
  • You Know Best: The discussion is less about learning and more about having the winning point of view. 


Misaligned Meaning

Sometimes, the intention behind our message is clear. That means it’s explicit. But the subject or situation might lend to framing the message in a way that doesn’t directly convey the intention behind it, making it implicit. 

In the latter case, the message is left open to interpretation and, consequently, misinterpretation. This is especially true if the communication occurs via text, email, or another medium where the tone isn’t tangible. The recipient may have to read between the lines. And if you don’t know them well, it’s better to be clear with your intentions. 

Granted, some circumstances require a more implicit approach for the sake of politeness. Knowing who you’re dealing with and being mindful about how they could interpret your message is key to ensuring that it’s understood.  


Similarly, the medium or channel used to communicate the message can also cause issues. We know that verbal mediums are more suitable carriers for implicit meaning, while written messages are clear if they’re explicit. Something as simple as the word “no” can be interpreted in countless ways when it’s being read. 

A potential solution comes in the form of emojis, which might be suitable in some customer service settings. It can also be used in more casual emails. 

Negative Perception

Here’s a fun experiment: Next time you hear a noise in another room at night, reach your hand into that room before turning on the lights or walking into it. Chances are that your imagination will conjure up all kinds of monstrosities. Our minds naturally tend to interpret ambiguity in a negative way first. 

This comes with a side-effect, which is orienting towards the negative when something obscure is mentioned. It’s especially pervasive with implicit written messages, as they’re open to more interpretation. Your best bet is to assume misinterpretation before malevolence and to keep negativity bias in mind when sending implicit messages. 

Information Overload

The key points of a message are easily missed when it’s buried under a mountain of arbitrary information. This can result in misunderstanding later down the line when the wrong steps are taken in accordance with the message. 

A reliable solution is to ensure that you only include the most important points, keeping the intention clear. The recipient is then less likely to become overwhelmed. 

Communication Skills

One of the root causes of information overload is a lack of communication skills. Not everyone finds it easy to keep their messages clear and concise. This can make them difficult to follow, which inevitably leads to frustration on both sides. Fortunately, there’s a pretty simple tip to keep in mind here: 

Speak with structure. Start by addressing the problem or subject matter. This requires properly understanding the problem yourself. Then mention why it’s currently relevant. From there, talk about the solution or what steps should be taken to solve the problem. 

Mental Models

Perhaps the biggest reason for miscommunication and misunderstanding is a disparity of viewpoints. In other words, the two parties can have a different idea of what the subject of the conversation means. 

This is due to mental models. There are a few of them that are particularly susceptible to causing misunderstandings. 

  • Cultures: We largely make sense of reality by using cultures or subcultures. They influence the way we see the world and are usually difficult to change. It’s easy to see why culture can cause miscommunication. What’s considered rude in one can be completely polite in another. Culture can determine our views on things like business as well. 
  • Confirmation Bias: This term explains our natural tendency to accept and focus on what fits our current beliefs while ignoring and avoiding anything that challenges them. 
  • Déformation Professionnel: Being confined to a specific profession or expertise can narrow our worldview, making it difficult to discuss issues with someone who has a different perspective. 

With any mental model, it takes being able to view the problem from the same perspective as the other person to resolve it in a mutually beneficial manner. 

As long as we have our own opinions, miscommunication and misunderstanding will always be a part of human interaction. At the end of the day, you can’t expect to avoid it entirely, but keeping an open mind will certainly help.