What I Said vs What They Heard

When giving instructions to a group or team, you may be able to gauge just how well you gave the directions by observing just how many people followed them. What might at first look like disobedience or poor listening skills could actually be the way you spoke, or your habit of speaking.

I used to assume that what I told people is what they heard. Then I had an experience that forced me to scrap that assumption.

I was presenting my Managing Customer Expectations seminar and at 11:30, per my client’s instructions, I announced the lunch break. “We’ll resume in 45 minutes,” I told the group. Promptly at 12:15, I was ready to continue. But where was everybody? I’m not especially fond of speaking to empty rooms. Ten minutes passed. Three people returned. I started thinking of the rest as the Stragglers. How inconsiderate, I thought. Rude! Thoughtless!

Let me tell you, I had lots of negative thoughts about these folks. 12:30 . . . . 12:35 . . . . Finally, at 12:40, my patience exhausted, I announced to the assembled few: “Well, I don’t want to keep you waiting any longer, so let’s get started.” “But it’s not time yet,” one fellow said. “You told us we’d start again at 12:45.” The others nodded in agreement. What? 12:45??? No way! I had said 45 minutes, not 12:45. At precisely 12:45, The Stragglers filed into the room. Every one of them. Somehow, they’d all heard me say 12:45. Could it be that that’s what I had said?

I wish I had questioned them right then and there, but I was so surprised, flustered really, to realize that the problem was entirely mine that I said nothing. Consider what happened here. Whatever I had said -- or thought I had said -- they heard something different. Yet I had vociferously (thought silently) found fault with them, never considering that I could be the guilty party. And if I hadn’t said at 12:40 that I’d get started, I never would have realized that a miscommunication had taken place, and a Naomi-induced miscommunication at that.

This experience made me wonder: How often do we all miscommunicate and not know it? How often does such miscommunication cause conflict, negative attitudes, and ill-will? And how often are we lucky enough to realize that it happened, so that we can rectify the situation before problems occur? Whether it’s a trivial situation like this one, or a critical situation, it’s wise to take explicit steps to prevent miscommunication.

For example, it might be advisable to state your instructions in different ways. (“We’ll resume in 45 minutes. Will any of you have a problem returning by 12:15?”) It also might help to do such things as clarify terminology, have listeners play back your instructions, or present instructions in both written and spoken form. But the first and most important step is to do as I now (try to remember to) do: When people behave in a way that conflicts with what I expected, I start by asking myself, Could it be me? Might I have said something, or done something, to lead to this situation?

Doing this has saved me more than a few times.

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