Communicating So Your Message Lands
The words you say are much less important than what the other person hears
“What is the movie playing in your head?”
My coach used to ask me this question every time I talked about a miscommunication at work. At first, I found it very odd. But then I realized what she meant.
When we speak, we are focused on our end of the conversation: the words we're saying. We see a situation like a scene unfolding in our own minds, and that means that when we speak, we’re using that movie as our frame of reference. But when others listen to what we’re saying, they may be hearing something completely different.
Imagine you're describing a movie to someone. It's about a fish that gets lost and needs to find its way home. The fish runs into a number of obstacles on its quest to return to its parent. Both of you assume you’re thinking of the same movie, but in reality, you might be thinking of Finding Nemo, and the other person is thinking of Finding Dory. Crucial information has been lost in translation because of the assumptions each person makes.
In the workplace, this type of miscommunication results in misunderstandings and misalignment. Today, I will discuss how you can avoid this while strengthening your interactions and gaining much-needed perspective.
Focus on the message you want the other person to receive
What you say and what people hear are two entirely different things.
In interpersonal relationships, there are always three components: your intent, your behavior, and the other person’s perception. (You can find more about this in my post on hard feedback.) This is also true of communication. In every interaction, you have to account for your intention (the message you want to communicate), what you say (the words that actually come out of your mouth), and, crucially, what the other person hears. This last point is where things get tricky because everyone you speak with hears you through their own filter—their experience, their relationship to you, and the assumptions they make.
Have you ever heard a couple fight about something that seems totally minor? On the surface, they might be arguing about the dishes or the laundry, but in reality, they're fighting about who they're going to visit this holiday or how unfair it is that they have to pick up the kids next week. Those words are never said out loud, but the people watching know that this goes way deeper than just dishes. The most surface-level disagreement may really be about something completely different, whether it’s a sticking point in the relationship or resentment that has been brewing for a long time.
Understanding this is critical to strengthening your communication. While to you, your message may seem completely innocuous, if someone has a fraught relationship with you, they will receive it differently. If someone reacts strongly to something you didn’t think was a big deal, pause and ask yourself, “Is this really about what we’re discussing, or is there something deeper at play?” This will help you get ahead of defensiveness and knee-jerk reactions.
Understand the context in which the other person is hearing you
I remember attending one executive review with two senior leaders at the company. I was representing a team and talking about the product that we were hoping to build, but one of the executives was resisting, pushing back against it based on an imagined promise from a while back. The other executive was pushing hard in favor of adding the product to the roadmap. They were each extremely powerful in their own right, but reaching alignment seemed impossible.
I remember leaving that meeting and saying to my team, “There are three conversations happening at once here.” Even though we were talking about the product we hoped to build, there were multiple layers to the discussion, including:
What was said in the room about our product, which was rather innocuous
A fight about a prior agreement that the executives each saw differently, with one of them feeling like the other had let them down
The negotiation to trade this project for another project that the first executive didn't want to take on
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