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Yesterday at work I had the same misunderstanding with two different co-workers. I'm working on a website with both an English and Spanish version. I explained over Slack that I found the resource files for both the English text and the Spanish text, and asked how I was supposed to get the Spanish text.

What I meant to ask was how I was supposed to translate the English text that I had in the requirements into Spanish text for the website since I don't speak Spanish.

Two of my co-workers thought that I was asking how I could pick whether to use English or Spanish text when the site displays. Both of them sent me direct messages to explain the technical specifications behind how we determine which language to display.

What I tried

I didn't know how to stop them, so I let them finish explaining and then asked a clarified version of what I actually wanted as if it were an additional question.

What my goal is

I want to know how I could interrupt them and explain that there was a miscommunication without being rude.

  • How long was the explanation that you got? Would it have saved a bunch of time if you had been able to interrupt? – DaveG Mar 7 at 19:29
  • @DaveG it would have saved maybe 5 minutes, which I know isn't a lot of time, but I'd still like to learn the skills in the event that I encounter this situation again when the explanation might be much longer. – Rainbacon Mar 7 at 19:31
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Phrasing

I want to know how I could interrupt them and explain that there was a miscommunication without being rude.

Part of the offense that can be taken by the other party when you correct them is whether you imply that they are at fault for the misunderstanding. This is perfectly embodied by your title:

How can I tactfully point out that someone misunderstood me?

Someone misunderstood you. Someone did something wrong. That implies that the issue lies with this person.

Contrast this to:

How can I tactfully point out that my message did not get across?

The message did not get across. Maybe it was received wrongly. Maybe it was sent wrongly. You leave it unspoken as to who is to blame for the misunderstanding, you're simply pointing out that there is a misunderstanding regardless of who made the mistake.

Which you can further contrast to:

How can I tactfully point out that I have misexplained something?

Here, you are explicitly blaming yourself for the miscommunication. This is the most applicable to your case, since you explicitly describe that you formulated your question badly.

Similarly, you can use "that I may have misexplained something" if you're not quite sure if you misexplained but you suspect you did.


Interjecting

Because this is an IM chat, you need to respond to it differently than you do in real life.

The main difference with IM is that your message is unseen until you've actually finished (and thus sent) it. This works against you, because while you are still typing out your correction, the other person is still unaware that you've realized there has been a miscommunication. The other person may be in the process of typing a lengthy response, unaware that they are writing a response that isn't actually necessary.

Because of this, I suggest immediately interjecting. Something along the lines of:

Wait, I think I misexplained.

Doing so in a spoken conversation may come across as rude because it interrupts the other person. But that rules doesn't quite apply in an IM chat. You are interjecting as a kindness to the other person, to prevent them writing a long answer that you didn't actually need.

This prompts the other person to stop what they're doing and wait for your next message, for which you can then take the time to write an accurate (and not rushed) correction:

What I meant to ask was how I was supposed to translate the English text that I had in the requirements into Spanish text for the website, since I don't speak Spanish

If you want, you can then add an explanation for why you're correcting your statement:

On rereading my initial question, I realized it could be interpreted as me asking how to pick the site language.

Note that I used a fairly formal phrasing because I'm not sure of your region's company culture. In our Slack chat, things are considerably more casual than this. I would casually write something along the lines of:

  • Wait
  • I meant [correct version], not [misinterpretation]. My bad.
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My solution in such situations is to apologize and immediately take the blame for poorly phrasing my question/not being clear/etc and then following with a rephrased question.

Ex.

Me: how can I get this English text to display in the Spanish one?
Them: (insert language specifying web function)
Me: Oh sorry, I think I phrased that poorly. What I meant to ask was how to translate the English text into Spanish to save it to our language files

I find in this way even though you cut them off, you're explaining that it's by your own mistake that you're having to cut them off.

  • The same answer I would give. The only thing you could also consider is to clarify that you already know the thing they're explaining. "... phrased that poorly. I do know how to <what they are explaining in a few words>. What I meant to ask was <alternative phrasing of your original question>". Otherwise they might not understand why you interrupt them if their answer also answers your actual question as well (at least how they interpret that "new" question). – Imus Mar 8 at 8:00
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    @Imus I don't think it's always necessary to include that you understand what they're explaining but certainly there are times when adding that can be valuable – BKlassen Mar 8 at 16:30

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