gap between what I think I say and what others hear
September 28, 2017 7:52 PM   Subscribe

I am surprised by how frequently I find out that someone has heard something from me that is completely different than what I thought I said. I feel like this happens to me ... 10 times a week? At least? At work, at home, about issues that range from unimportant to important.

I'm also surprised by how often I think I'm communicating an idea clearly, only to find out later that nobody really got what I was saying. Like I think I'm saying "the goal of this project is x" but then a week later someone will say "so the goal of this project is y, right?"

How can I determine what I'm doing wrong?
posted by mrmurbles to Human Relations (16 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
Hard to say if you're doing something wrong (or if the people you're talking to just aren't paying attention for some reason), but you could try saying something like, "Just to make sure that was clear, could you tell me what you heard/understood?" immediately after communicating something. There may be a more elegant way to phrase it, but I think it's fair to ask.
posted by pinochiette at 8:10 PM on September 28, 2017 [10 favorites]

Best answer: If it's work-related, maybe send follow-up emails? They help establish your diligence and cover your butt if any errors occur, and also keep the team on track.

You can do it informally via friendly messages like, "great speaking with you today, look forward to seeing you on Thursday at the meeting!"

More formally, something like- "Thanks for our chat today! Just to record what we ironed out: The project's goals are X, Deliverables are ABC, to be received from JKL on (date), and success metric will be XYZ. Looking forward to collaborating on this!"

In terms of what might be happening in social settings, is it possible that one of these things is happening (these are various reasons why I personally sometimes have a hard time listening)

Do you speak unusually slowly, quickly, or quietly?

Do you speak with little tangents into other subjects that might disorient the listener? "So we had a meeting on Monday- or wait was it Tuesday? Yes Tuesday..." (the important part is "meeting" but now most listeners are remembering "Tuesday"- if this is you, try to be more concise and let the tiny details be imprecise rather than breaking the story flow by nitpicking them)

Are you overly indirect with a tendency to politely hint at what you want, rather than saying it directly?

Do you tell really long stories or include too much backstory?

Do you make clear eye contact? Or do you make overly intense eye contact?
I find it hard to listen to people who look away from me, close their eyes, roll their eyes around nervously, or stare too intensely at me while we're interacting.

Do you start with a little intro that ensures the person knows they need to actually listen, and end with something that lets them know if they're on the hook for followup? "Hey I just want to iron out our plan for Monday. So we'll do ABC... is that good for you, and can you be ready?" or "OMG I was so annoyed at Peter today, do you know what he did?" (rather than "so today was a long day and Peter was being really loud while I was ay my desk working and I was tired and...")
Starting with an intro that kind of summarizes the main takeaway, whether for work or fun, really helps people focus on the key points.

Otherwise... maybe it's not you, maybe it's them.
posted by pseudostrabismus at 8:22 PM on September 28, 2017 [19 favorites]

This happens to me a lot both at home and at work and I think it's different in the two contexts.

At home, I have teenagers and a busy husband and I don't think any of us are really actively listening to each other at all times, and probably I'm glossing over my own communication because I think they can read my mind and vice versa.

At work, I'm painstakingly careful to be incredibly clear knowing that people are just kind of expecting me to do all the work of communicating. Conversations at work, not so much with colleagues but during client-facing conversations, often go something like:

me: "So we'll be doing X at Y time with Z factor included".

client: "So that's X?"

me: "Yes, that's X, at Y, with Z".

client: "And at Y time?"

me: "yes, X, at Y, with Z of course as you asked and as we agreed".

client: "and did you put down that Z?"

me: *murders client with brain*

client, from grave: "and you're sure that [things I already clarified were impossible] can't be done instead?"

It sounds like you might benefit at work from a quick followup via email or putting out a Slack reminder or something to at least take it off your mind that you communicated clearly. Sometimes if you're doing back and forth with a few different bits of information, one will stick for some reason and it won't be the right one.

At home, christ, I don't know, we all have shared calendars and talk constantly and we literally have a jokey shorthand for when someone (it used to always be the same person, but lately we've been so busy that other people have started being completely unaware of things that have been planned and discussed out loud ad infinitum) has no idea what the hell is going on. At home I'm learning to be really generous both with the others and myself when there's confusion or misunderstanding, because sharing a household with other people is a lot of brainpower.
posted by padraigin at 8:35 PM on September 28, 2017 [9 favorites]

This has plagued me for years. I have spent a lot of effort honing my speaking and writing skills. When I care enough, I can turn them on and feel confident that my message is being transmitted as accurately as humanly possible and that any communication noise is coming from the medium or the receiver itself.

Having said that there are already some good advice here:

If you are explaining something complex, break it down into three main points instead of fire hosing your audience all at once. People remember three simpler chunks better than one big complex one. LIST those chunks. Call them "one, two, and three" if you have to. Repeat them without sounding mechanical. Use body language (seek out books on that. 90% of all communication is non-verbal). "Hammer" your main points (gently) with your fist in your hand or on the table if you have to.

"If you go away from this meeting learning one thing, this. Is. What. You. Must. Know."

Summarize. Hit the three main points again. Gently quiz.

"Remember, the reason the person who puts on the lockout/tagout must be the same person to take it off is what, Jerry? Come on, don't leave me hanging, man."

At home you may have to take an (only slightly) different approach. Remember these good communication techniques but let them do most of the talking. Try to take a Socratic approach. You'll have to tweak your technique to suit the person you're talking to (your son probably doesn't listen the same way as your wife) but the best general piece of advice is to get them to engage the brain BEFORE you end your conversation. Be cognizant of your audience. Are their brains in neutral? Tweak your words. Be concise. Get them to engage! And don't separate until they can repeat back to you and prove they know what you were getting at. It will pay dividends next week when you have to remind them.
posted by Lord Fancy Pants at 9:00 PM on September 28, 2017 [3 favorites]

I get this a lot also. One thing that helps is the old "Tell 'em what you're going to tell 'em, tell 'em, and tell 'em what you told 'em".
posted by at at 9:39 PM on September 28, 2017 [11 favorites]

I think this is pretty standard - two simple reasons:

1) People generally don't listen

2) People generally don't seek clarification for things they don't know or understand

Putting things in writing can help, but is not foolproof - repeating things can help, but people can either forget them because they've been said too many times or can get overwhelmed with info.

Basically - you are not alone.
posted by heyjude at 9:48 PM on September 28, 2017 [3 favorites]

Best answer:
How can I determine what I'm doing wrong?
If practical, record yourself and go back later once you know how you message was misunderstood to see if you can reconstruct how it happened. Once you identify bad patterns, make an effort to avoid them in the future.

In any communication attempt there are at least three related versions.
  1. There's what you think you said.
  2. There's what you actually said.
  3. There's what your audience thought you said.
Sometimes the biggest gap is between 1 & 2. Sometimes it's between 2 & 3. But unless you have access to 2 it's going to be hard to tell where the problem lies.
posted by Nerd of the North at 11:48 PM on September 28, 2017 [2 favorites]

Put it in writing. Maybe you're not communication clearly, or maybe people aren't understanding as they should, but I often need something in writing to refer back to in order to stay on the same page with people. For whatever reason, when these conversations happen only verbally, specific points mentioned might slip my mind, my main takeaway might be different than what the other people intended to be the takeaway, or I might have even misinterpreted something that was said. So I definitely always take notes for any conversation -- I know it's something I need so I do it for myself -- but you might want to start sending follow-up emails. Also, if you are running a meeting or having a check-in with someone, write notes for yourself so you don't miss any points you want to make and so you are prepared to emphasize the main takeaways.
posted by AppleTurnover at 12:19 AM on September 29, 2017

Best answer: Assumptions. Assumptions are what trip me up every time. You can do this excercise at home: Pick a complicated Ask Me human relations question, read it once and then answer it (don't press send just yet!). Before you press send, read the question again and see if the facts you had in your head are actually corroborated by the question - often you'll find that you made up a narrative about the OP in your head and then adjusted the facts to fit it.

This is especially true with big picture people and fast thinkers. The former are able to extrapolate a whole story out of only a few details. The latter zoom off into a compelling narrative or theory and forget to listen to / ignore the rest of the details.

If that sounds like you, then in your future communications try to intentionally slow down, remain aware of this propensity of yours and try to counter it.
posted by Omnomnom at 1:42 AM on September 29, 2017 [4 favorites]

Best answer: Lots of possible causes here, but they fall into a few categories that I can think of (not a comprehensive list):
  • ambiguity errors: There are two possible reads to what you're saying. "Move the meeting ahead two days."
  • scope problem: One of you is attuning to a different level of the topic. "I like this design, but that button is weird."
  • literal vs. metaphorical misunderstanding: You're talking metaphorically, but somebody is taking you literally (or vice versa). "Oh gosh, let's just start over!"
  • basic misunderstanding: Somebody didn't hear what you said, or misinterpreted it. "Our lips are sealed."
If I think of others I'll post them, but identifying what _type_ of problem you're having is the first step toward knowing how to fix it. Good luck!
posted by iamkimiam at 2:07 AM on September 29, 2017 [3 favorites]

Argh, the MetaFilter text editor automatically removed all the explanations after each quote because I used html chars. :(

Ambiguity: Is the Wednesday meeting now on Monday or Friday?
Scope: Is the design approved, but the oddity noted or is the design not approved because of the oddity?
Literal/Metaphorical: Really start over or are you simply expressing exasperation?
Basic: Heard as 'Alex the Seal'.
posted by iamkimiam at 2:11 AM on September 29, 2017 [1 favorite]

I encounter a lot of ambiguous communication at work, both written and verbal. For example, "tomorrow's meeting has no agenda" - that could mean there isn't supposed to be an agenda, or it could mean that there is supposed to be an agenda and the person mentioning it is trying to find out what it is. Or "make it look like this" - copy it exactly, or use the color scheme and layout, or just capture the overall feel? Or responding to "here's a draft; is it approved?" with just "thank you." You're welcome, but is the draft approved? If these sound like the misunderstandings you have, try making it a point to request explicitly what you need, and explicitly answer other people's questions.

Putting everything in writing helps, too. I ask for written requests even when I perfectly understand the verbal request; I can't always keep things in my head. I find that putting things in writing also helps me anticipate and preemptively address possible questions.

Erring on the side of too specific can be good practice: "I'd like the donut with pink sprinkles, second from the left, yep that one."
posted by Metroid Baby at 3:38 AM on September 29, 2017 [1 favorite]

Are you being both explicit and specific? Have you actually said the words, "The goal of this project is X," or did you just talk about various factors of X a lot and assume everyone would understand that X was important? Do you say words like, "OK, so Jane is going to do A, Joe is going to do B, and I'll take care of C and D" at the end of a planning meeting to clarify and summarize, or do you just assume they've figured that out over the course of the conversation?

I have an irrational fear of being too wordy, or of telling people things they already know, so I've been having to force myself to do some of that, and it's clarified communication a lot. And I've realized that even the people who already know that the goal is X or their next step is B still appreciate the opportunity to nod and know things.
posted by lazuli at 7:04 AM on September 29, 2017 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I spend a lot of time teaching our trainees to be more specific and to consider the specifics of what they are asked to do - they are after all being trained to be bean counters.

I also spend a lot of time following up with my clients about specific points of something they do or specific requests we've made that they appear to have missed, ignored or whatever.

My conclusion is that people don't listen or even read properly.

That causes them to fill in the gaps in the information they took in incompletely with assumptions.

Also, some people go to great length to obscure the specifics and to avoid responding to specific requests. But most of the time it is either not deliberate or I am talking to somebody who doesn't know and is reluctant to admit that.

And there is a hard limit to how many specifics you can communicate in any one communication. Very few people can take in more than 3-4 specifics at any time.

As a lot of this is outside your control. All you can do is be concise and specific in your communications.

And adjust your expectations around how much people will really take in so you don't get frustrated. To an extent people can learn to pay more attention to details but it is not something that comes easily to all people.
posted by koahiatamadl at 8:40 AM on September 29, 2017

My husband and I have vastly different communication styles (ask vs tell) so we resolve this by ending anything we need to be sure the other person has got with "What do you think I just said?"
posted by wwax at 8:46 AM on September 29, 2017

I bet someone I work with would be surprised at the difference between what they say and what I think they say.

This person uses very large words and high-concept jargon. I literally never have a clue what the hell they are talking about, and then they get upset that I didn't do it.

So don't do that!
posted by rebent at 9:59 AM on September 29, 2017

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