Misheard Messages

We recently did a workshop for a group of growing leaders about effective communication – how easy it is to talk, and how tough it is to communicate. As George Bernard Shaw said: “‘The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.”

Verbal messages from leaders carry a lot more weight than most leaders appreciate, and what is said is often taken to mean more than the leader anticipated.

Here are a few examples of typical leadership messages that are inevitably misinterpreted:

  • “If you have something important to contribute, please speak up.”

Sounds like – “You never say anything important, so be quiet.” I have heard an employee relate how the manager says this often in meetings, and it leaves her feeling dismissed. “It is as if our thoughts are never valued or appreciated. “A better phrase would sound like an open invitation to contribute – “I would love to hear your thoughts and ideas.”

  • “We can’t mess this up.”

Sounds like – “One mistake and you’re done.” The message is interpreted as a threat and an indication of low to no trust. While the leader is stressing the importance of the job, the message relays as a demotivating stab. A different way could be: “This is a very important job for the company, and I know you will pull it off.”

  • “What are you working on?”

Sounds like – “This manager is clueless and has no idea what my job is? Why are they checking in? Is this leading to micro-management?” The intention of the statement is often to be a gentle conversation starter – but coming from a manager, it can go many places, but not an open conversation. A stronger question is something a bit more pointed – “How is your XYZ project progressing?’ or something personal – “How is your baby doing?”

“Our words are powerful. They have an impact. They create comfort and fear. In the wrong hands, they can lead the masses over a cliff. Used well, they can marshal a multitude into a shared direction. This is the immediate challenge for leaders and the danger of misunderstanding can have terminal results.” (Conor Kenny)

Communication has a singular purpose, and that is to convey a message. Using plain language, keeping it simple and phrasing in a way the audience will be open to the message is very important. As Susan Scott mentions in her book “Fierce Conversations” – “Our work, our relationships, and our lives succeed or fail one conversation at a time. While no single conversation is guaranteed to transform a company, a relationship, or a life, any single conversation can. Speak and listen as if this is the most important conversation you will ever have with this person. It could be. Participate as if it matters. It does.”