You know the phrase, “The best laid plans . . .”? No matter how slowly and carefully we communicate in the flat medium of the written word, misunderstanding and confusion are inevitable. Rather than being frustrated or angry, expect it. Everyone in the workforce today, whether a CEO or frontline supervisor, needs to anticipate asking and answering questions that clarify meaning, especially at the beginning of a new relationship.

I teach graduate students in leadership and organization development for the University of Denver online. As an instructor, I am comfortable with the learning platform. I follow instructional design principles, and I do my best to communicate clearly. Recently, however, I taught a course where almost half my students posed the same two questions about a key project assignment. I strive to be clear, so I was discouraged that I had obviously missed my mark. I thought I had been abundantly clear.

I chuckled, remembering that I am human, and that my readers aren’t in my head with all my context and experience at their disposal. I reminded myself that taking a few minutes to clean up a confusing message is simply part of the job of online facilitation. Period.

It’s also a principle I teach, so I had a confusion problem I needed to fix—and fast. The course’s virtual office made it easy, both questions were cleared up (and hopefully won’t recur this term), and the class was notified in case others were also confused.

It’s harder to “read between the lines” when we don’t have voice tone or body language to help. Misunderstood writing isn’t a problem unless we don’t take the time to ask when we don’t understand, or if we won’t take responsibility for answering questions and clarifying meaning when others are confused.

Virtual team communication, especially when written, is no different than an online class. More frequent verification of understanding and clarification of detail is, quite simply, normal. And yet, we all can tell familiar stories about team conflict that has escalated into personality feuds or distrust, or both. It’s hard to bring our best when conflict is disruptive. On virtual teams, it’s an even greater risk.

If your team is not asking clarifying questions naturally, you are vulnerable to conflict that doesn’t further team intelligence. Instead, it drains energy and takes from the team. Team agreements and collaborative tools help limit confusion, ease project management, and prevent unnecessary misunderstandings that lead to team conflict. Frequent conversations connect team members informally in the normal course of a business day. Leverage standing and stand-up meetings. Reach across virtual distance to check in without an agenda. And, as mentioned, take care to craft your written communications with the audience in mind.

Here are five more proactive ways to clear confusion that reduces unnecessary conflict in the virtual workplace:

  1. Take as much time as necessary to be sure your writing is as clear as possible before publishing or sending your written communication.
  2. Use the collaboration tools to confirm communications were received, read, or responded to; build in any other feedback loops you need. In other words, ensure the communication has been completed and understood—and that it continues until the task is complete.
  3. Expect questions. It may seem like the receiver of your message is dumb or didn’t read carefully, and it may be true. It doesn’t matter. Clarity and aligned understanding prevents dumb conflict, so be patient while ensuring it. If you’re like me, you may also waste time judging yourself as a poor communicator. We all are, at least sometimes. Just expect some back and forth until everyone understands the intended message. Make it a habit.
  4. Expect newer relationships and teams to be more iterative until you get to know one another and settle into team rhythms. The practice of innovation in business is mostly iterative, making improvements to an existing system or product based on observation, discussion, and rapid improvements. For innovation to be groundbreaking or even disruptive, it takes a different view of a problem or opportunity outside the bounds most companies operate within—a conflict to the norm, if you will. Welcome wide-ranging conversations that are invigorating and clarifying, rather than falling into a business habit of debate. Innovation is usually a collective effort requiring co-creation, which includes bringing differences out to find the deeper solutions.
  5. Add protocols and efficiency aids as they are needed. For example, in my teaching, we have consistent, predictable due dates and engagement expectations throughout the weeks. Most learning happens in discussion that requires regular participation, hearty disagreements, and lots of respectful inquiry and advocacy among the students. Class routines develop into team rhythms and flows that free people to focus on what matters and easily ask for help. 

Healthy conflict strengthens teams. Unnecessary conflict due to simple misunderstanding does not. Conflict happens despite your best laid plans. It is how you handle the situation—knowing your job is to clear confusion and seek resolution—that matters.

Want to learn more? Join me in Atlanta at ATD 2017 Conference & Exposition for the session: Conflict Resolution in the Virtual Workplace.