Posts Tagged ‘communication’

Communication is about what they hear, not what you say

If you think you’ve conveyed something but the other person hears something completely different, is that their fault or yours? 

Recently a friend of mine posted a photo on Facebook:

As pithy and humorous as it was, I disagreed. Strongly. From my perspective the onus is on you to consider not just the words coming out of your mouth, but how they are received.

Everyone has their own background and context that they overlay on top of what they hear. It’s our jobs as communicators to consider that perspective and to adjust the way we communicate accordingly. If we do, we stand a better chance of persuading them to agree with our point of view.

For example, let’s say I want to go to a specific dim sum restaurant (yum!) one night, and need to convince my wife that we should go there. Her existing perception of the restaurant will affect the way I approach the conversation:

  • If she’s been there and liked it: “Hey, want to go back to that great dim sum place you liked tonight?”
  • If she’s been there and didn’t like it: “Hey, can we give that dim sum place another chance?”
  • If she’s never been there: “Hey, want to check out a new dim sum place?”

By taking into account her existing perception, I can optimize what I say to increase my chance of her agreeing.

The same principles apply in business. Client calls go better when you consider where they’re coming from, and you’ll build better relationships with team members when you consider their backgrounds and personalities.

On a larger scale, your messages will be better-received if you consider your audience and their perceptions. The larger-scale side of things is hard, but that doesn’t mean it’s not worth doing.

As I said at the time, “Not doing so means the outcome suffers, whether that’s something as small as picking the restaurant you want, or as significant as buying your company’s product or believing your party’s political view. If you’re ok with that then that’s fine, but if persuasion is your goal then it’s important.” Good communicators take the time to understand their audience and the key stakeholders in a situation, what they want and how to satisfy their needs.

It’s not easy, but the reality is that your outcomes – at work and at home – will improve if you focus on what people “hear” rather than what you say. If you’re ok with the opposite then that’s fine; if not, then give it a try and see.

What do you think?


How Rich Is Your Communication In A Conflict?

Two businessmen in conflict Have you ever thought how the different media you use to communicate can give different results? Do you think about the tools you use to communicate with people before selecting which one to use?

Conflict isn’t always a bad thing. Constructive conflict leads to better ideas, better teamwork and better productivity all-round. However, conflict can also become destructive quite easily, and the method of communication used by participants can easily contribute to that.

A colleague mentioned to me today that she wanted to go on a conflict resolution course so she could help clients resolve their internal conflicts more effectively. That made me think back to a paper I wrote a few years ago about the features of different communications media, and how they can influence interpersonal conflicts.

Let’s consider a few different forms of communication and how their characteristics come into play.


Timing: Synchronous

Cues: Body language, tone of voice, facial expression

Notes: Face-to-face communication is what’s known as a context "rich" form of communication – the other person receives many more cues than just the words being communicated. It’s also synchronous – the other person receives your communication at the same time you send it.

For these reasons, face-to-face is often the best way to communicate in a conflict as it provides the least risk of being misunderstood.


Timing: Synchronous

Cues: Body language, tone of voice, facial expression

Notes: Video-based communication comes a close second to face-to-face conversations when it comes to communicating in a conflict. You get all of the cues that face-to-face provides; the only thing that’s missing is the physical presence in a room which can be beneficial.


Timing: Synchronous (with the exception of voicemail)

Cues: Tone of voice

Notes: Communication by phone, like face-to-face communication, is (generally) synchronous. Unlike face-to-face conversations, you lose the cues provided by body language and facial expressions when you’re on the phone. This can increase the chance of misunderstandings which can exacerbate conflict, but on the whole phone conversations are a fairly good way to communicate during a conflict.

Instant messenger

Timing: Generally synchronous

Cues: Emoticons

Notes: While IM conversations are generally synchronous, they have little of the richness of face-to-face or telephone conversations. Unless you’re using video chat, you lose all of the visual and tonal cues that those media provide, greatly increasing the likelihood of misunderstandings. You do have the option of using emoticons, but even they can be misinterpreted.


Timing: Asynchronous

Cues: None

Notes: Email, as a communications medium, is quite liable to escalate conflict rather than resolve it. It provides zero clues as to the context behind the words in the message. It’s also asynchronous, meaning that people are more able to let a message sit as they get more worked-up about the content of it over time.

As a conflict resolution medium, email is far from ideal.


Timing: Asynchronous

Cues: None

Notes: Blogs rank right down there with email when it comes to interpersonal conflicts. While they can be powerful tools for communicating during an organizational crisis, blog posts and comments are a sub-optimal solution for resolving conflicts between individuals.

Social networks

Timing: Asynchronous

Cues: None

Notes: Right down there with email and blogs; there are many better ways to resolve conflicts than through social networking tools.


Timing: Asynchronous

Cues: None

Notes: If there’s one medium that’s worse than email for conflict resolution, it’s micro-blogs. In Twitter‘s case, for example, forcing messages into a 140-character limit can force much of the nuance out of messages, exponentially increasing the likelihood of people misunderstanding or misinterpreting them.

Do you overuse email?

When you look at this analysis (albeit of only one aspect of these forms of communication), it’s clear that email really isn’t a good way to communicate when you’re trying to resolve a conflict. Unfortunately, that’s the way a lot of communication is handled nowadays in organizations, leading to conflicts spiralling out of control and becoming destructive.

Sometimes it’s better to walk down the hall or pick up the phone instead of replying to that irritating email. You may find the intended message wasn’t what you thought.

In this light, how do you feel about the way you communicate in a conflict? Do you over-use some of these tools in that kind of situation? What tips would you offer?