It Doesn’t Matter What You Say

Communication is a marvelous thing. It requires at least two parties to participate. One that is sending the message and the other receiving. It sounds straightforward enough. What can go wrong with such a simple concept? And still, every single day we are part of miscommunications and misunderstandings. Why? Because things are more complex than they appear. So what is going on and how do you improve your communication style and ensure your message is being understood the way you wanted to?

The chicken soup

It all starts with idea in your mind. “Oh, I would love to get chicken soup for lunch today,” you think. You don’t really usually eat soup with the exception of chicken soup. You just love it and for some reason today crave it since the morning. Unfortunately you don’t have time to get to the restaurant due to workload so you ask a colleague to bring it when he goes for his lunch. “Jim can you do me a favor and bring me a bowl of chicken soup from the cafeteria?” “Sure, no problem,” says Jim. And after an hour comes back from his lunch with bowl of beef soup. “Here you go. They didn’t have chicken so I took beef soup instead.” You hate beef soup. “You can keep that! As always you are not able to follow even the easiest request,” you snap at Jim and he strides away angry resolved to never talk to you again and complains about you to other coworkers.

Silly? Well, it happens all the time. A small misunderstanding caused by poor communication turns into huge issue down the road. So what actually happened here? Several things:

  • You didn’t mean what you said
  • The listener understood the words and not the meaning
  • You misinterpreted initiative as incompetence

Always say what you mean

If you want a chicken soup because you love it and you are looking forward to its taste more than to its nourishment value you should say so. “Jim, can I ask you to bring me bowl of chicken soup? I just crave it and cannot think of anything else. If they don’t have it in the canteen then don’t bring anything and just let me know.” You communicated not only what you want but also why you want it. This “big picture” or the context of your request is vitally important for proper understanding. In fact, based on my experience, majority of misunderstandings come from people not explaining “why” something needs to be done or “why” it was done the certain way. Without context things are open to interpretation.

Always verify what the other party understood

It is probably silly with our chicken soup example but to have the person repeat in his own words what she understood is a good strategy especially in asking for a complex deliverables. “Jim just so we are on the same page and there is no room for error, can you summarize how you understood the next steps we just agreed on?” Asking someone to tell in their own words what was agreed is a great way to hear how they understand the situation. Just be careful and don’t take things for granted. Listen for details.

Imagine that on the meeting you agreed that you need to schedule business review meeting. You expected Jim to do it. When you ask him to summarize the next steps he says “we will schedule business review.” Because you expect him to do it, you hear that he will take care of it when in fact that is not what he is saying. The statement should immediately trigger an alarm. “Jim, just to be clear, I expect you will schedule the business review.” “Oh yes, that is what I meant. I will schedule it.” Only now we have enough clarity to be reasonably sure the message was understood.

Always verify your interpretation of events

We tend to read too much meaning into random actions of others. And if we care enough about a particular topic and we don’t like the way something is being handled we tend to immediately assume a malicious intentions of the other party. The mentality often is “I’m the one who means well for everyone and others have only their own interests in mind.” Unfortunately, since many of us have this mindset in many various situations you can see the logical problem with it.

Consider these statements:

  • “Jim, I see you brought me beef soup when I wanted chicken soup. You never listen to what I say.”
  • “Jim, I see you brought me beef soup when I wanted chicken soup. It appears to me that you haven’t listen to what I said. Can you verify my interpretation is correct?”
  • “Jim, I see you brought me beef soup when I wanted chicken soup. I’m not sure how to understand this, can you help me out and explain why?”

How different will these things sound to Jim? First one is a clear attack and puts Jim to defensive position. Second one is much better, you are asking for explanation, but the underlying feeling is still that you are assuming Jim is no good. The third one is completely neutral. It just states facts and leaves everything else open to discussion. “They didn’t have chicken soup so to make sure you are not without lunch I brought you at least beef one, even though that is not what you requested.” “Much appreciated the effort and that you care for me. You are right, beef is not my favorite, but it will do. Thanks again.”

How little it takes to have completely different outcome of the conversation. Just keep an open mind, don’t automatically interpret things without seeking clarity, and always assume that others mean well. If you keep these in mind your ability to communicate, understand, and be understood will improve dramatically. At the end it doesn’t matter what you say, but what is being understood.


How often does it happen to you that your thoughts are misunderstood? Who do you blame? How do you try to resolve these misunderstandings?

Photo: © pathdoc / Dollar Photo Club

Categories: Communication

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