It Doesn’t Matter How Smart You Are if You’re Not Communicating your Message

Another one for the things-you-didn’t-know-about-me column: In university I studied socio-historical linguistics. (Yes, they let me make that up. No I didn’t finish it. That’s why it’s not on my CV and why you never knew that about me.)

I had a doll of a professor who hated grammar. Which made her stand out, as I’m sure you can understand. She was a linguist, and in linguistics, the only “rule” of language is that when you speak, you are understood by your listeners.

Under this definition, txting is a language, ebonics is a language, any form of pidgin and any grammatical butchery still counts as a language as long as the speaker can still make herself understood. Just like that last sentence. It’s still English, even if Strunk and White would protest.

Now, apply this concept in real life.

It’s not up to your listeners to understand you. It’s up to you to make yourself understood.

This is just as critical in personal relationships as it is in professional life. If I’ve told you a hundred times and you still don’t listen to me, it’s my problem. Not yours. If I’ve told you my expectations for a project and you still didn’t do it the way I wanted it, it’s my fault.

Why? Because we’re wired to please. We want to do the things the right way. We don’t want to do things over again. So why are these miscommunications so frustrating and so common?

The communicator is not getting the message across in a way that is understandable to the listener. If you are committed to sharing your message with a particular person or group, then you have to speak to common miscommuncation issues like “What does this mean to me?” “Why should I care?” and “That’s not what I thought you said.”

Lies, Damn Lies, and Assumptions

Most of the reason that communicators don’t get their message across is that they’re blind to their own assumptions. Like lies, they have a few different names: connotations, implications and assumptions.

You see, words have little outfits that they wear. We call them “connotations.” However, not everyone dresses their words in the same outfits. When we speak, we like to use words that invoke certain connotations because connotations usually have an emotional element, and using emotions are a good way to connect to your audience.

You run into problems with this mostly when a word that has a +/- connotation for you has the opposite effect on your audience. The polarity you were seeking just backfired on you.

Implications are another way to lose people. I lose my husband on this all the time. I’ll say something like: “the oil needs changing in the truck.” and perhaps get upset when he doesn’t get it done in the next couple of days. But it’s my own fault for not explaining the implications of that statement: It’s 5k over, or I’m going on a business trip with it, or even, I told you we should have put synthetic in.  If you tell a person you want a task done, but give incomplete guidance on how and why you want it done, you’re likely to get a surprise.

Assumptions are probably the worst because the problem is two-fold: You have to notice that you have an assumption (usually about the worldview, philosophy, or state of knowledge of your listener) and you have to bring them into awareness of your viewpoint without coming across as holier-than-thou or otherwise bringing up their defences. They have to want to see things your way, and the best way to do that is to truly understand how you see things differently.

For instance, my husband has a problem with his feet, which in turn affects his back and knees and causes him a lot of pain. I told him he should do yoga, yoga has all these wonderful effects, blah, blah, blah. He won’t do yoga. So I tell him, “Then don’t expect footrubs when you won’t even do basic stretches to help yourself.”

Finally I asked him one day why he wouldn’t help himself; why he would choose pain over exercise. He said, “I don’t see why I should do yoga just because you do yoga.” Huh?   “But don’t you realize that yoga will gently correct your twisted ligaments and muscles, and once you learn what proper alignment feels like, your body will autocorrect because it realizes that a better alignment is possible? Right now your body has been stuck this way so long it’s forgotten what feeling good feels like.”

He hadn’t realized that. He thought I was trying to make him exercise just because I thought he should exercise.

In what ways are you not being understood, and how can you improve the way that you communicate?

Bonus relationship points: metamessages are the underlying emotional themes that we attempt to convey through our speech. Look for these especially in criticisms and complaints. When my husband says “You never bake anymore.” I could take it and face value and reply,  “Yeah, I don’t really crave baking anymore, and anyway, I don’t have time.” But what he’s really saying is this: “You don’t do sweet and nurturing things like bake [for me] any more. Don’t you love me?” Of course we don’t say this because that would make us vulnerable. Do yourself a favor now, not as a speaker, but as a listener. Listen to what people mean. Not what they say.


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