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?


Dave Fleet
Managing Director and Head of Global Digital Crisis at Edelman. Husband and dad of two. Cycling nut; bookworm; videogamer; Britnadian. Opinions are mine, not my employer's.