Written by: Virginia Blair, Director of Operations, Cornerstone Defense

I have always been the type to care about and be engaged with the people around me – I am most certainly a people-person. Though this stems in part from my social and outgoing disposition, I also have great appreciation for human nature, and how our perceptions and behaviors affect the way we engage with the world. Different personalities, backgrounds, beliefs, and much more, shape the way we interact with each other through all aspects of our lives. These characteristics can sometimes highlight differences in the way we communicate, but there are also many significant trends that show we communicate more similarly than we think. If you’re like me and enjoy trying to make a positive impact in your community or workplace, understanding the ways and patterns in which people communicate can equip you with interpersonal and leadership skills that can help foster effective change in these spaces.

Though I had intended to go to college as an Education Studies Major, I made a last-minute decision to declare as an English Major when I went to Bridgewater College in 2010. However, during my first semester at school, my Oral Communication Professor convinced me that Communication Studies was where I would excel and successfully recruited me for the major. I quickly became zealous in the Communication Studies field, and eventually I even served as President of the school’s Mass Communication Organization. Communication Studies absolutely changed my world – I felt like I had a whole new framework that I could use to discern how and why people behave the way they do, and also, a new perspective on how to better communicate my own thoughts and ideas. To this day, Communication Studies is a big part of the lens through which I evaluate problems, troubleshoot, and come up with solutions, especially in the workplace.

While there are endless ways communication affects the workplace environment, there are four concepts over the years that come to mind on almost a weekly or daily basis, observed at many different jobs I’ve held and companies I’ve worked for. I like to think of them as my Communication in the Workplace “Greatest Hits.” 😊 As Director of Operations at Cornerstone Defense, these concepts are extremely useful in my day-to-day responsibilities. In sharing them, I hope that you can glean something useful to take with you and implement a positive change in your workplace – perhaps even starting today! 


  1. The first of these concepts may seem obvious, but it comes first on the list because of its rampancy – general miscommunication. While we know miscommunication is bound to happen, we often underestimate its frequency and our own contributions to it. Some studies have shown that around 80% of employees indicate that miscommunication occurs frequently in their organization. That’s a lot of miscommunication! So how can you keep an eye out for miscommunication? Start by identifying situations where it is likely to occur. For example, four common sources of miscommunication are lack of context, excess communication/verbiage, vagueness, or having a predetermined assumption. Many of us struggle with at least one item in the preceding list. Be aware of areas where you can improve your own communication, and if you cannot understand a received message, don’t hesitate to seek clarification from a coworker (in a friendly manner, of course!) By holding ourselves and others accountable, we can mitigate at least a small amount of miscommunication.

Another effective antidote to miscommunication is to ask yourself the following question when conflicts arise in the workplace: “Could this conflict possibly be caused by a miscommunication?” A lot of heartache can be saved by asking this simple question. A coworker (let’s call him Fred) once called me feeling angry at another employee due to an email he had received. In Fred’s asking for clarification, we quickly determined that he had completely misinterpreted the email! We often rush to anger or frustration if we perceive a slight or disagreement, but it’s best to gather all the facts before reacting or confronting others. So just in case, determine first that you don’t have a miscommunication issue. Once you’ve answered that question, you can move on to conflict mitigation, if need be.

Communication Styles

  • Miscommunication can result from language or word choice errors, as mentioned in the previous example, but it can also be heavily influenced by a person’s communication style. The four communication styles dignify four different ways/styles in which people tend to communicate. The four types of communication styles are Assertive, Passive, Aggressive, and Passive-Aggressive, and are all largely self-descriptive. Can you identify which communication style best describes you? You can likely identify the communication styles of a few of your coworkers as well. Consider how these styles might affect a workplace environment. Passive-Aggressive communication styles almost always lead to forms of miscommunication, since a Passive-Aggressive speaker may be saying/acting differently from how they actually feel. Aggressive styles can easily overpower others, especially those with Passive styles. Though conversely, those with Passive communication styles may be better than others at diffusing a confrontational situation involving an Aggressive communicator.  As you can see, there are many different combinations and ways communication styles can intersect and affect what kind of messages are being sent and received. While we should all strive to embody an Assertive communication style, it would be naïve to think the workplace will ever be comprised of 100% Assertive communicators. Since that is the case, it’s good to familiarize yourself with the communication styles and see if you can start to notice how they affect relationships in your workplace.

Conversational Maxims and Honesty

  • Personality and communication styles can certainly influence how we communicate, but another place where workplace communication can tend to breakdown is when a conversational maxim is violated. Grice’s theory of Conversational Maxims holds that there are four things conversations must have to avoid communication breakdown; quantity, quality, relation, and manner. Quality refers to the truthfulness and factual accuracy of the statement. In the workplace, lying, or even fibbing, is a violation of the conversational maxim (Quality) and compared to other conversational maxims, violating the Quality maxim can cause long-term distrust. Alternatively, the Quantity maxim (saying too much or too little) can lead to a confusing conversation,  but can be easily mitigated and wouldn’t necessarily change how you feel about trusting that individual. Dishonesty, however, unequivocally erodes trust. While we all make mistakes or occasionally miss deadlines, consistently failing to meet deadlines or fulfill commitments damages that trust. Follow through on your promises, and always own up to it if you make a mistake. For instance, a gentleman visited our office to meet with a senior member of our team at Cornerstone Defense. The gentlemen asked for a coworker who I knew was currently out for lunch, so I promptly informed them via phone. Moments later, my coworker came bursting through our office front door and said to the waiting gentlemen, saying, “I’m so sorry I’m a few minutes late. To be honest, it’s been very busy and I just forgot about this meeting.” I think many people in this situation would have lied and made up an excuse – after all it was only a few minutes that my coworker was late. But, he clearly had an opportunity to fib and chose not to instead, gaining trust and respect from the person he was communicating with. No one is perfect, but I would certainly pick a teammate who, albeit makes mistakes, is trustworthy, over someone who feels they need to lie because they cannot face their own faults or mistakes. Making sure your communication in the workplace is direct and honest, and encouraging others to be held similarly accountable, can save you from a lot of sticky situations and simultaneously promote harmony and cooperation amongst your coworkers.


  • Being direct and honest, even when it may be uncomfortable, brings us to our last communication phenomenon to look out for – the dreaded groupthink. Groupthink occurs when a poor decision is made by a group, despite a better option being evident. Aptly called “groupthink,” the name of this phenomenon highlights how our thinking processes change when decisions are divided amongst a group, resulting in a reduced sense of personal responsibility. Groupthink can arise due to factors such as fear of speaking up, lack of oversight, inattention to detail, lack of leadership, and many other factors that are inherent in group decision-making. In simpler terms, it’s that feeling of looking back and wondering how everyone missed something so obvious.

So, how can groupthink be mitigated? Fortunately, there are several very effective strategies that can help curb a group’s propensity to make mediocre decisions.

  1. Ensure meetings and committees have designated leaders, and make this known. This helps avoid the pitfall of lack of leadership.
    1. Examine all viable alternatives. The group leader should encourage everyone else in the group be a ‘critical evaluator’. There is, however, a threshold after which playing devil’s advocate can start to become counterproductive. While examining all reasonable alternatives and outcomes is important, don’t confuse healthy dissent with true contrarianism. Familiarize yourself and your teammates with how that threshold can be identified through discernment.
    1. Employ a diverse group of individuals of different race, class, gender, interests, skills and backgrounds. If “two heads are better than one”, imagine how much that logic multiplies when you have an endless array of opinions, thoughts and knowledge – this can only make your team and your future decision-making skills exponentially stronger!
    1. Finally – create an environment in which people feel comfortable expressing dissent. Recently, I made a funny face in response to something my boss said in a meeting. I guess my face revealed I was a little annoyed because he laughed and said, “Ginny – you’re allowed to disagree!” Actually, I didn’t disagree, and I had been making a face regarding something I had suddenly remembered about a tangential issue. But, it still served as a reminder of the trust I have in my boss and his efforts to promote an open culture where disagreement and honest opinions are encouraged.

The field of Communication Studies holds immense potential to positively impact how effectively we collaborate in the workplace. While this could be said for many different fields of study, Communication Studies stands out due to the constant nature of human communication i.e., that we are never not communicating (one of the 5 Axioms of Communication.) Even when we are not speaking, or not actively choosing to communicate, we are constantly sending and receiving communicative messages all day, all of the time!  This perpetual engagement in communication makes delving into the theories of Communication Studies particularly impactful. The topics discussed in this brief piece, mitigating miscommunication, understanding communication styles and conversational maxims, and avoiding groupthink are just the tip of Communication Studies iceberg, and the more we learn, the more positive change we can bring about with that increased knowledge. James Humes, a former presidential speechwriter said, “the art of communication is the language of leadership,” and I wholeheartedly agree!  In my experience, Communication Studies has equipped me with fantastic tools to bring people together, in the workplace and otherwise, and make a positive impact on the world. If you enjoy doing the same, I encourage you to explore the theories presented above, and see how they strengthen your own leadership. I hope you find them effective and if you do, feel free to share the article with others who may benefit or comment below and share your experience!