Your Message: Crystal Clear or Foggy

Quick Summary: Make sure that your intended message is what the other person heard – It can be very different.



Misunderstandings seem to be an ever-present, unintended occurrence in both our personal and professional interactions.  How many times do you say or hear: “That is not what I meant?”  In many instances, the issue is caused by the speaker making an assumption about the listener and not “wasting time” by providing more details.  Our fast-paced, short message communications norm has aggravated this problem.  The burden to minimize this problem falls clearly on the speaker and not the listener.

This article could have been placed in several other chapters and sections in this collection.  Your message, whether it is directed to employees, prospects, customers, business partners, investors, or even general audiences, needs to be crafted following the same overall guidelines.  Your focus needs to be on what you want the audience to hear and understand instead of what you want to say.  There is a significant difference that can easily be missed.  In many instances, we do not take the time necessary to provide enough meaningful information and do not focus on a person’s understanding.

There is an old, amusing story about a Freshman English College Professor and her students. It was the last day of classes before the final exam scheduled for the next day.  As the professor reviewed the material that she had covered throughout the semester, the students kept asking subtly and directly what questions would be on the final exam.  Much to the dismay of the students, the professor would not answer their questions.  Finally, when the bell rung ending the class, as the professor packed up and started walking out the door, she gave them one hint about the final.  After she left, a major argument among the students erupted.  Everyone knew exactly what the professor had said.  Half the class knew the professor had said: “No Shakespeare” and the other half heard: “Know Shakespeare!”  The professor’s intent was clear to her, but it certainly was not clear to half the class, but which half?  The only difference was one small word, but to the class, it had a major impact on their preparation.

This situation occurs every day in every organization and at every level.  Clarity between the speaker and the listener can vary widely with resulting disappointments, re-work, or significant consequences.  Perhaps the professor was trying to be helpful, perhaps not.  In a business setting, virtually all interactions are intended to be positive and clear.  However, innocent miscommunications regularly do occur.  The differences between sender and receiver interpretations are not limited to humans.  “Machines” can also “misunderstand” one another.

In the early 1970s, telecommunications experts began to address this problem.  The solution evolved and, in one instance, became one of the foundational elements of the Internet.  It is referred to as the Transmission Control Protocol or “TCP,” and “rides on top” of the Internet Protocol widely known as “IP.”  The IP protocol establishes the standard definition of packets that are transmitted and the source and destination of each packet.  Think of each packet as a word that is spoken by a speaker that can be heard by many different listeners in a broadcast setting.  The speaker has no idea if each member of the audience heard the word or not or if they heard a different word by mistake.  The broadcast of an IP packet is an example of one-way communications.

The TCP protocol is responsible for checking for errors, eliminating duplicate packets, and re-assembling them in the correct order.  If a packet is received in error, the TCP protocol asks the transmitting end to re-send it.  Since each packet is numbered sequentially, the TCP protocol can determine if a packet never arrived and can ask that it be re-sent.  With this approach, the burden for ensuring the correct flow of information is left up to the receiving end. A simple English language example of a TCP exchange is:

  1. Sender to Receiver: Here is a message.
  2. Receiver to Sender: I got your message.
  3. Sender to Receiver: I am glad you received my message.

For humans, the communications process is similar, but usually not as rigorous.  Often during a conversation, the speaker will look for some form of acknowledgment that their message (a group of words) was properly received.  The acknowledgment might be a nod of the head, a hand jester, or a spoken response.  If the listener did not properly hear the message, they are likely to inform the speaker through a comment or jester – asking the person to repeat themselves.  If the message was never heard, the listener, obviously, cannot tell the speaker, and the speaker may think that the message was received.  Or worse, if the wrong message was received, an error may go undetected.

The above tangential description of TCP and IP is intended to highlight the difference between rigorous machine communications and human communications – and the problem with many human interactions.  Here is a simple example to illustrate the point:

  • Sender:  Did you get the meeting notice?
  • Receiver:  Yes, I did.
  • Sender: Great

The above seems straightforward, but what-if?

  • Sender:  Did you get the meeting notice? [Meaning the meeting was just canceled.]
  • Receiver:  Yes, I did. [I know, the meeting was already on my calendar.]
  • Sender: Great

So, who was at fault?  The sender for not delivering a complete message or the receiver for making an assumption about the intent of the message?  What is clear is that neither party intended for the miscommunication to occur and both would have been surprised by the mix-up which was certainly the other person’s fault!

In today’s 140 character or less, always in a hurry, multitasking environment, the chances for miscommunication has significantly increased.  Unlike the TCP protocol which relies on the receiving end to check for error-free completeness, for humans, the burden should fall on the speaker.  One simple, straightforward habit that can help to avoid most of the miscommunication problems is to follow the notion that communications is the act of being properly understood and not just speaking.  Repeating the above example with this definition of communications in mind:

  • Sender:  Did you get the meeting notice that the meeting was canceled?
  • Receiver:  Yes, I did.  Thanks for checking, I can use the free time.
  • Sender: Great.  I will let you know when the meeting is re-scheduled.

Yes, it took a few more seconds for each person to more fully interact, but isn’t the extra time worth it?  Practice this simple technique, and you will quickly become as good a communicator as a machine!


Article Number : 5.040506   

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