Are You Really Saying What You Want to Say?

Today’s topic focusses on communication, whether that be with co-workers, our supporting community or even in our personal relationships. Specifically I hope to engage us in a discussion about the gap between what we say and how it is perceived.

I have always been amazed when sitting in a meeting how everyone walks away with their own interpretation of what was said. We all have different motivations for the things that we do. It’s not a far stretch then to say that we all have different perceptions of what we hear. We are, in essence, a summary of all our learning and experiences.

For example: I show appreciation with words. When I think someone has done a good job or has handled a situation well, I tell them. People have responded to this in one of two ways. Some feel acknowledged and say thank you. Others see it as a form of manipulation or insincere flattery.

I used to have a boss who felt this way. I’m not exaggerating when I say there was a lot of friction between us. We both tried in our own way to reach out and ‘fix’ it. Sometimes I would find little chocolates waiting for me on my keyboard, in a drawer or arranged in some ‘cute’ fashion on my desk. I knew my boss had put them there. It made me angry. I thought it was a cheap ploy to try to make up for how he didn’t appreciate my work.

One day it occurred to me that while I showed appreciation with my words, my boss showed appreciation with little gifts. With this new revelation in my relationship-building toolbox, I began to show appreciation by leaving chocolates in his office. The result? A dramatically improved working relationship and environment.

We all want to be understood. And we all want to understand. Instead of bringing us together this need often tears us apart. Remember the story of the blind men and the elephant? One man touches the elephant’s leg and says to himself, “An elephant is like a pillar.” Another touches its tail and declares, “An elephant is like a rope.” Yet another touches its ear and concludes, “An elephant is like a fan.” This misunderstanding leads to warring among them. Little do they know that they are all right.

What would happen if the blind men ask questions for clarity? All hold a portion of the truth and listening to each other’s answers would help them to see the bigger picture. Imagine how employing this concept can lead to better outcomes for all of us when applied with our co-workers and to our projects. It can make the difference between ‘warring’ and ‘building community’.

When two parties speak the same language, a gap between what is being said and what is being understood can exist – even when both parties are saying the same thing. It is important to identify these gaps and figure out how to communicate in a way that is understood as it is meant.

Suggested Questions to start the Discussion

In relation to co-workers; can you remember a situation when you were struggling to be understood or to understand someone else? How did it play out? How can the gap between what we say and what is understood be addressed?

In relation to organizational communication with our supporting community; can you identify instances were industry terms or organizational key messages are confusing to the general public? How does your organization address this issue?

The purpose of The Other Bottom Line is to facilitate discussions that will help us all to better engage with our communities. Your participation and feedback are most welcomed and valued. Please join the discussion below.

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9 comments

  1. Ian Munro @ leadingessentially.com

    Wonderful post Diana. So many angles to consider.

    Appreciation can be given, but is only effective when received.

    Everyone’s perception s their own reality and can only be changed if we are own to new views.

    I’ve just been reading about the roles of the various parts of the brain in our reactions and it is interesting how it applies in this sense.

  2. Wyrd Smythe

    Good stuff, and to be honest, this is probably one of the most challenging areas in life for me. It’s not helped at all by the perception that the wrong ways people take me are their problem and due to their “flaws.” I have tried all my adult life to find ways to talk to people so they will hear me, and I’ve been ineffective. Apparently I’m an incorrigible bull in a china shop.

    And I’m clear the flaw is mine… I just can’t wrap my head around how people react so emotionally to information and discussion (let alone actual debate). My intentions are always honorable. I seek to raise the bar of understanding and knowledge, but people react as if I’m attacking them. (And it’s so, so, SO hard to not blame them for being small-minded.)

    My answer to your first set of questions is: Constantly, and it always results in me being seen as the bad guy. I once got dinged in an annual performance appraisal, because another worker had sent out a mass email asking if anyone had the address of a retired employee. When no one replied after eight hours, I took the two minutes required to query Google, found the address and replied. I also explained how I’d used Google and (here’s my mistake) made a comment about teaching her to fish (rather than just giving her a fish). She was offended and complained, and rather than anyone explaining to her how she’d wasted corporate resources and probably did need a bit of education about the modern internet, they did what modern life always does: any complaint is a valid opinion (the hell they are).

    So I got dinged, and you can see from how I tell the story where I think the major fault lies. The irony is that one of the things they evaluate is called “Raising the Bar.” I did exactly that… and got dinged for it.

    • theotherbottomline

      Thank you so much for sharing your personal experience in this area. I can understand how the example you provided was frustrating for you.

      I don’t think every complaint is ‘a valid opinion’ so to speak, but every person does have the right to their opinion and every complaint is an opportunity to start a conversation toward building a mutually beneficial understanding.

      I applaud your efforts to communicate in a way that you would be understood. Out of curiousity, did you ever follow up with the lady who issued the complaint? If so, how did it go?

      • Wyrd Smythe

        No, there was no reaction at the time, and it wasn’t until many months later during my review that it came up (and by then I’d completely forgotten the incident and her name). Given how touchy people can be, and given my inability to be placating when I think I’m right, any effort on my part would almost certainly have been a disaster.

        I do absolutely agree everyone is entitle to their opinion. But I don’t think every opinion deserves the same respect — some opinions are just flat out wrong and many are poorly thought out.

        In the corporate world, and in politics, there is a tendency to validate every complaint, and I think it’s an extension of the idea that ‘everyone is entitled to their opinion.’ The problem comes from considering all opinions equal. They aren’t. Some are informed or at least cogent, others are ignorant or ill-formed. Some are just plain bat-shit crazy.

        We used to be better at sifting the crazy from the cogent. Somewhere along the line we lost that. Somehow opinion became more important than correctness. You see this played out on talk and news shows daily.

      • theotherbottomline

        Oh my Smitty! You need a handler – in the media relations world that’s a person who builds key messages for spokespeople to help them communicate what they want to say.

        Communication is a two-way street, your boss and even this woman could have handled that situation better as well – it’s not all on you. 🙂

      • Wyrd Smythe

        My handler would have to follow me around daily! 😀

        I know it’s not all on me in the abstract; in fact, I think very little of it is on me in the abstract. During the ding I couldn’t remember what I’d written, but there was some line about giving someone a fish and teaching someone to fish. I can’t imagine it was snarky, but different people have different ideas of snark, and some people are very self-defensive.

        They violated their own rules. They’re not supposed to spring something on you at performance time without speaking to you earlier and giving you a chance to recognize and address the issue. And I mentioned that “Raising the Bar” and cross-training others is something they expect and measured us on.

        Corporate America. Ugh!!

  3. jelaines

    I often have this problem. I think I’m being clear and concise, and people look at me like I’ve said something weird. I try to communicate in the same manner as others do, but even when I think I’m succeeding, it’s obvious by the looks on their faces that I haven’t figured it out!

    • theotherbottomline

      This is true for a lot of us – you are not alone in this. Communicating what we are trying to say is hard work as is truly understanding others. Is it worth the effort though? From what you wrote it seems you would agree that it is.

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