an ice cream cone which has been dropped on the pavement
Avoid these common mistakes. Photo: Sarah Kilian / Unsplash

5 Communication Mistakes to Avoid at Work (with Easy Fixes)

Improve your skills by avoiding the top 5 communication mistakes! Be more effective in the workplace by fixing them.

Jonathan Kahn author photo
Jonathan KahnCommunication Coach Updated: 8 Feb 2024

Would you like to improve your workplace communication skills? Here’s an easy place to start. Learn what not to do!

I’ve trained hundreds of people over the last 10 years. So I know the biggest pitfalls and how to avoid them. Use this post to check whether you’re making common mistakes. If so, apply an easy fix.

The top 5 communication mistakes to avoid at work are:

  1. Using the wrong channel
  2. Panicking
  3. Not reading the room
  4. Waiting for your chance to speak
  5. Trying to make yourself look smart

Watch the full rundown in this video:

Or read on for the article version.

1. Using the wrong channel

How many workplace arguments have you seen in email or chat threads? Maybe you’ve been part of a disagreement via email.

How many similar arguments have you seen in face-to-face meetings or video calls? I bet it’s a smaller number. Why do so many disputes happen on these text-based channels?

Text channels: great for background information

In business today, more and more communication happens via text. I’m talking about email, chat apps like Slack and instant messenger. These channels are great for:

  • sharing background information
  • keeping people up to speed
  • routine operations
  • minor feedback like corrections
a person uses the Slack chat app on their laptop, while holding a mobile phone
Chat apps like Slack are perfect for sharing background information. Photo: Austin Distel / Unsplash

One of their selling points is that people don’t need to use them at the same time. This suits teams who work across timezones. And people with flexible hours. But when you use these channels for real communication, this feature becomes a fatal flaw.

Crossed wires are a built-in feature

Hang on. What do I mean by “real” communication? Activities like:

  • making decisions about priorities or strategy
  • creative sessions like workshops
  • discussions where people have different views
  • giving feedback

If you use text channels for these purposes, you’ll see their flaw: crossed wires. People often talk past each other on these channels. Because the other person isn’t there in real time, you can’t check for understanding.

Communication is “lossy”

To use an engineering term, communication is “lossy”. The message that the other person receives is never exactly what you wanted to send. This isn’t a problem when you’re in the same room, or on a call. You can check, clarify or ask a question. But on email or chat, it’s a disaster.

4 people take part in a design workshop
When you’re in the same room, it’s easy to check for understanding. Photo: Jason Goodman / Unsplash

The mistake, then, is choosing the wrong channel. Before you write an email, ask yourself:

  • is this routine or background information?
  • or could there be more than one point of view?

If in doubt, use a live channel instead of text. Face to face is the most effective option. An hour together in a room with a whiteboard works wonders. If that’s not practical, video calls are also great for checking understanding. Failing that, voice calls are better than email. You have time to check, and you can hear a lot from the way people say things.

If you must use email, try this. Use the message to set up a call!

2. Panicking

How often do you panic at work? Like when:

  • you need to update the team about your progress
  • someone asks you what you think during a meeting
  • you’re about to deliver a presentation or talk

It’s common to feel anxious when you need to speak in front of others. Particularly when there’s more than one of them. Anxiety isn’t always a bad thing, and you can’t get rid of it. But when you begin to panic, you won’t perform well. Because you’ll focus on yourself instead of the audience.

Notice the anxiety, but don’t let it drive

When you need to communicate and feel anxious, you may:

  • try to control outcomes, for example by over-planning
  • tense up
  • become defensive

These are signs that anxiety is driving your behaviour. It’s as if you’re determined not to let other people affect your state. But it doesn’t work. You can’t achieve effective communication unless you’re open to being changed!

a conference presenter makes eye contact with the audience
When you get in a two-way flow, anxiety will dissipate. Photo: Paul Clarke for Together London

The fix is to notice the anxiety without letting it drive. Instead of panicking and trying to control outcomes, connect with your audience. Use tricks like:

  • asking questions (or for a show of hands)
  • getting live feedback or questions from the audience
  • making eye contact

Once you get into a two-way flow, the anxiety will dissipate. People won’t notice that you’re anxious, and you’ll no longer be panicking.

3. Not reading the room

What’s the number one problem with public speaking in the workplace? Failing to read the room.

If you’re like most people I work with, you know your stuff. You know what we should do, and why. But there’s something you don’t know: why it matters to others.

At face value, “reading the room” means being aware of the emotional state of people in a physical room. Are they excited, bored, tired or hungry? Are they enjoying what you’re saying? Do you need to change your plan to adapt to their needs?

They key to effective public speaking is to tailor your message to a specific audience. Do your homework. Figure out how what you know can help people to get their work done.

a conference audience who look bored
Read the room: is your audience bored or energised? Photo: Product School / Unsplash

We can take this idea further, though. Before you get in the room, have you identified your audience? Do you know what they need from you? How they see your topic?

4. Waiting for your chance to speak

When you’re in a meeting, do you ever do this? As other people talk, you think about what you want to say. And wait for a gap to jump in with your point.

There’s a saying:

Listening is not waiting for your chance to speak.

Here’s the problem. This isn’t communication. You may as well send each other memos! You’re not listening, and the other person won’t listen to you. Because your point won’t connect with theirs.

There’s a simple fix. Separate out the stages:

  • Is it time to listen to what others are saying?
  • Can you reflect back, or try active listening?
  • Or is it time to share your views?

Sometimes we have an urge to make a point. If someone else is talking, why not make a note of what you want to say? Then you can give the speaker your full attention. And when you’re sure you’ve understood them, they’ll be ready to listen to you.

5. Trying to make yourself look smart

When people ask you to share your views or explain something, do you try to:

  • share profound or clever ideas?
  • make yourself seem smart or sophisticated?

If so, this is a mistake! Effective communicators don’t make themselves look smart. They make their audiences feel smart. By:

  • explaining complex ideas in a simple way
  • showing them that they can do or understand something
  • making them think
  • inspiring them to try something new

Audiences are more interested in themselves than in you. They don’t want you to big yourself up. They want you to give them something they can use. They want you to make them smarter by sharing what you know.

A conference presenter stands on stage in front of a large screen
Effective communicators make audiences feel smarter, by explaining concepts in a simple way. Photo: Teemu Paananen / Unsplash

The trick is to think like a teacher. Identify something that your audience needs to learn about your topic. This nugget might be obvious to you, even trivial. You have deep expertise in the area. So you may be surprised at how much people appreciate learning the basics. Show your audience how to do something by:

  • breaking it down
  • adding context
  • explaining core concepts
  • answering questions
  • showing them how what you know is relevant to their interests

Make your audience feel smarter by showing them that they can understand your area. If you succeed, they’ll perceive you as an excellent communicator. Even if what you shared seems simple to you.

Next steps

How did you do?

If you already avoid these mistakes, great work. If you do some of them, no problem. Apply the fixes and you’ll be on your way.

Now you know the top mistakes, check out 7 Ways to Boost Your Communication Skills this year!