“Words are the source of misunderstandings.” ― Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, The Little Prince

Photo from: pexels.com

By: Terry Waterhouse

In the world of business, it is important to provide concise & clear directives to your business partners, suppliers, consultants and customers.

It may sound easy to do, but in reality it is quite complex, especially in an office or project environment with mixed cultures, different languages and perspectives on the message.

We cannot afford for people to make assumptions on your behalf and we need to be sure that the instructions we give are simple, clear, concise and on-point.

  1. Don’t assume they know what you mean

You know what they say, that assumption is the mother of all mistakes! Don’t be the fool that assumes people know what you mean. Whilst most people in your office or business will be intuitive and switched on, they are not mind readers. This can be for anything from industry acronyms to who to contact in different departments or organizations. It will only take you a few seconds more to explain the details.

Where possible if the instruction can be supported by a visual example such as a sketch or diagram to help the recipient have a picture of what you mean. The recipient isn’t telepathic nor can read your mind.

  1. Be clear and specific

Everyone loves a waffle (dripping in maple syrup please) but no one likes waffle in conversation and especially not in an email or when it is a set of instructions. Whilst you don’t want to ramble on in your set of instructions (that would be a waste of your time and to be honest, they’d switch off after a while) you do want to ensure that your instructions are clear, specific and concise. Personally I prefer not to butter it up, and would rather get straight to be the point. I often find it helpful to bullet points as it reduces the temptation to waffle on and it helps your instructions and actions be more focused.

  1. Give time frames

Do not confuse matters by not being specific with your time frames and deadlines. What you consider as “soon” might be very different from your colleagues. If you think “soon” is the next couple of hours, yet your staff who you have instructed considered it to be in a few days then this communication is going to have serious implications in any business or project! Be specific with the deadlines you are working on.

  1. Give examples

This will be especially beneficial if the idea is new or they are new to the role, or if they haven’t carried out the task before. This will help add clarity to you instructions and help form a clearer picture of what you mean and want.

  1. Give alternatives

When delivering your instructions, it is worth considering giving some alternatives just in case your preferred option of instruction is not viable or available. By giving alternatives, you are empowering your staff and the recipient to get the job done with minimal fuss and constant checking back in with yourself. By setting alternatives they don’t have to keep coming back to you. After all, it won’t save you time if you have to keep responding to queries.

  1. Set boundaries

Personally I am not one for micro managing and because of this I am not one for people to keep checking in with me whether they should do something or not. Once a task is set, the instructions should be clear enough that further confirmation and clarification is not needed (however saying this it is obviously best to seek clarification if unsure!) If this rings true with you, then you need to make sure that your instructions are clear so that they are certain with what they are doing and don’t feel the need to keep coming back with questions.

  1. Get clarification

It wouldn’t hurt to seek clarification from them to ensure that they understood what the task is and what is expected. You could simply ask at the end if there are any questions, but the one issue with that is that it is all too easy to just simply say “no”. Either they might think they understood or they might be too shy to ask! Perhaps ask them to recap on what is required, or what the priorities/objectives are so that you can ensure what you’ve said is what’s been heard!

Few people wish to work from unreliable information, yet this is the risk when assumptions are made. The risk may be negotiable when something is taken for granted on the basis of long and reliable experience. The risk increases with assumptions made on meager evidence or with disregarded for the facts.

Some effects of working to false assumptions are:

– Wasted effort.

– Inhibited performance

– Unexpected differences, delays, or failure

– Unsolved problems and obstructed improvements


If you are on the receiving end, here are some tips on how to get the right message, and get the job done correctly:

– Always check your understanding of the purpose. Guard against the tendency to assume that another person’s the same view as your own.

– Examine the criteria. Are any of these instructions inconsistent with what we are really trying to do?

– Scrutinize the information. Are there expectations, hitherto reasonable, but dubious now because of changed circumstances? Any assertions that will have a big impact on what we decide to do should be confirmed.

– Reflect on what is to be done. Does this follow from reliable information? Is it influenced by any unspoken assumption?

– Review the plans. If based deliberately on certain assumptions is there also a contingency plan? Take steps to see that plans are understood by those who will implement them.

About the Author:

Terry Waterhouse is one of the founding directors of Red Goodss Ltd. a multi-disciplinary design and consultancy based in Hong Kong specializing in Retail Design. In 2017, the company merged with Diadem and Terry became Diadem’s Director leading the Hong Kong/Asian office of fourteen multi-disciplined designers and project managers.


*First published on Philippine Retailing newsletter 2018 Q1 issue.