And no; this is not going to be about THAT wall – but the wall between us when we try to communicate our ideas and our thoughts.

Sometimes when we try to communicate accurately, it is as if there is an invisible barrier between us that muffles and distorts our meaning.  On the other side of the barrier is the listener, desperately trying to decode and decypher what is coming through; and yet with all the will in the world it is as if our meaning arrived filtered and cleansed of our carefully composed rational thought.

Well, it might not be quite that bad!  But it does seem as if there are times when we are wilfully misunderstood!

But in fact, our listeners never set out to misinterpret our words; they don’t lie awake at night planning careful strategies to subvert our ideas – they are as desperate as we are to get it right – so what goes wrong?

Usually we can all understand the words – unless English is our second language – we should be familiar with the building blocks of language to understand the words that are spoken. It is the responsibility of the speaker to choose those words with care and with due thought for the listener.

What we are less certain of is the meaning or the intention – or both together.  We believe that we have the understanding correct only to find that our interpretation is not what the speaker intended.

So when it is essential that our communication is effective, we should remember that we speak through walls, through barriers; and if we understand that we can work to minimise the distortions and hopefully break down or punch through a big enough hole for our true meaning to get through.

So, what are these barriers, the bricks that build the wall between us and our listeners?

Our choice of words

A busy manager rushes into the office and hands a pile of paperwork to the PA with the words “Take care of these for me please!” and rushes out again.

A familiar scene? Of course it is – but what did he actually say?

Take care of these …” means precisely what?  File them? Send an email? Wrap them up in cotton wool?  Such inexact word use is building a barrier between need and outcome. Let’s hope the PA knew exactly what the manager wanted or there could be recriminations!!

If you are in the habit of similar wall building techniques, stop, and think, what is it exactly that you want done – then say it.

Can you file these papers, please” – gets you what you want. “Take care of these” may not.

Lack of precision

Closely allied to the previous brick – this one is often tossed off without thought. 

“Let’s talk about that after lunch” – so there you are, after a quick sandwich in the coffee room, waiting and waiting.  What’s gone wrong?  Well the speaker had a lunch meeting, and was mentally planning to meet you after that – oh around two o’clock – by which time you have been waiting an hour and a half!!

Take a word from the wise – if an idea can be misunderstood it will be. So again, the breakthrough comes when the speaker speaks with precision.

“I’ll be back from lunch at two o’clock; we’ll talk about it then.”

See how easy it is when we just stop and think.

The ‘You Can’t Miss It’ conundrum

Because of course you can. 

In fact, if you are given this brick, then it’s pretty obvious that you are going to miss it by a mile!

The reason being that the speaker has one visual in his head, while you are constructing another.  When you get to the place where ‘you can’t miss it’ you are looking for your constructed visual and will probably not recognise the speaker’s intention.

People who use this technique and find it goes wrong will probably berate the listener – ‘but I told you where the file was’ – they believe because it was so clear in their mind it had to be equally clear in the listeners’.  Trust me on this – it won’t be.

Breaking down the barrier

So how do we break down the bricks and punch a hole through that wall to show clearly what we mean and what we want.

1.         Think – yes, I mean that.  Think about what it is – exactly – that you want to be done or to achieve.  Then put that into words that state clearly your requirement.

2.         Be precise in your choice of words.  Make sure that you use words that the listener can understand.  Many people in the workplace do not have English as their first language, so the words we choose must be clear to all.

3.         Check for ambiguity – don’t leave any part of your message open to other interpretations.

4.         After delivering your clearly thought out, and unambiguous message – now check for understanding – “so will that be OK with you, here at two o’clock to talk about the IT problems?” 
If the listener was mentally thinking twelve thirty, they now have a different understanding.

The wall of misunderstanding is, of course, composed of many more bricks than these.  But even breaking these bricks down will bring more clarity to your communication.

So, everyone, take up your verbal sledge hammers and start hammering away at these three communication bricks – we have a wall to break down.

Michele @ Trischel

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