That’s not what I said


Communication is hard.

It takes a lot of effort to be understood clearly because—as Psychology 101 tells us—meaning is in the mind. The things you say pass through the filter of your audience’s life experiences and the lens through which they view the world.

Other factors such as mood, hunger (smile), timing, context, and patterns also affect how what you’re saying is received. The easiest way to be misunderstood is by sending an electronic message in haste without thinking about the recipient.

  1. Is your message expected?
  2. Are you saying something that can be interpreted in multiple ways?
  3. Is what you’re saying emotionally charged?
  4. Is context required in order to understand how to interpret your message?
  5. Have you framed up the message you’re sending with the necessary expectations?
  6. Do you expect a response?
  7. Are you agitated or angry?
  8. Are you speaking to be understood or just heard?
  9. Do you want to further discuss the topic or is your message complete?

A better way to communicate is on the phone. Tone, cadence, and pacing are hard to infer when reading a text message or email. (Unless of course you enjoy spending more time discussing what you meant than what you said).

Better still is discussing a topic in person. Body language speaks volumes.

One best practice I’ve picked up from my mentor is asking the recipient to repeat back to you what you just said in their own words. This not only forces them to be even more engaged during subsequent conversations for fear of being outed as distracted or unengaged, it also forces them to reveal the filter through which your message has passed.

It will be an uncomfortable exercise for you and the listener depending on the topic, but it’s worth it if you care about being understood. This goes both ways of course, repeating back what you just heard also helps others become better communicators.

I’ve also observed that effective communicators will state a point or idea and then repeat the same idea in various ways using stories and anecdotes. Louis CK points this out about Chris Rock in this brilliant video:

[People consuming this post via prehistoric technologies can watch the video here.]

I would link you to the section of the video in question, but I don’t have 49 minutes and 34 seconds to find it. Sorry :)