Now I Remember!

June 20 - Now I remember

And Other Things We Think we Really Understand


During a recent speaking engagement, I was sharing how to use great communication skills to create transformational moments in our teams. During one exercise, one group was chatting of memories as a child when their fathers pulled out the wooden spoon – one participant laughed as she shared, “Now that was a transformation moment.” I said, “I don’t believe that’s the same definition of transformational.” We had a good chuckle, and they returned to the table discussion.

While this is a humorous example, we often have miscommunication because the different meanings that as listeners place on the words vs. meaning that the person speaking intended. Couple this with the reality that our brain checks out of conversations approximately every 12 seconds, we tend to miss a lot of information during conversations.

The next conversational blind spot I’m going to share is about how we think the meaning of our conversations lies with us, the speaker, when in fact, whatever the listener hears is where the meaning really lies. In other words, we need to ensure that we are clear and are fully understood. Otherwise, we are likely to have a situation like the game, telephone tag – where what we think we heard was not what was intended – the message gets lost and people become confused.

It’s not uncommon in the workplace for situations like this to happen. As so many individuals fear conflict, they are unlikely to clarify meaning and will hope or ass-u-me that they understood. Then they share the directive or other important information with their direct reports. Then other leaders share their perceptions and before you know it, there are inconsistent messages being received along with inconsistent practices happening.

So how can you stop this insidious communication challenge?

  1. In one to one or small team situations, ask people to explain back their understanding, using their own words. The commonly used reflective listening practices often have people simply repeat back the words the speaker but words can have very different meaning for the listeners.
  2. It is important to ensure that the words you are using have a shared meaning – see the example of “transformational moment.” You can ask, “I want to make sure we are on the same page, so when you say ______, can you define what you mean when you use that word or phrase?” This will open the conversation up to explore a deeper understanding of one another.
  3. If it’s in regards to a Change Management initiative, then having a Town Hall Meeting where all team members are present will be important. Again, be careful that you don’t fall into jargon and that you explain clearly what you mean. Then ask for any questions and encourage people to ask anything that is not clear to them – whether in today’s meeting or in the upcoming weeks via email. Putting out an anonymous survey to learn what people understood can also be a helpful exercise especially if you have a less than ideal team culture.
  4. Role model asking for clarity and being open to having questions answered. You might even have someone ask for clarity in front of the team to show that you are open to fully explain your meaning.

Taking the time to ensure that both you, as speaker, and your listener(s) have shared meaning is a valuable and time-saving process.  If you do not, then people’s experience is likely to shade the meaning that they take from the experience. Time spent up front is an investment in ensuring smooth operations going forward.

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