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Communication: intent or impact?

Communication between professional adults should be easy, straightforward, pleasant even…. And of course, it mostly is, but why is it that sometimes communication just doesn’t work and results in misunderstanding, frustrations, hurt feelings and so on? Stuff gets in the way: mistaken assumptions, an unintended sharpness of tone, technical or idiomatic language that baffles the listener, mismatched needs and priorities, competing values or simply a bad day.

Man wearing a suit and tie making hand gestures to communicate
Gestures - non-verbal communication

Assume positive intention

We have a tendency to assume the worst: ‘how rude!’, ‘they’re trying to undermine me’, ‘they don’t value my work’ and so on. This can take us down a tunnel of defensiveness and negativity which is often unwarranted. Instead, if we pause for a moment to consider what else the other person has going on in their life or if we may have misunderstood what they really meant, we can let it go. Assuming positive intent means we don’t waste time and energy stewing over how this person has wronged us. If they are having a bad day it has nothing to do with us. Although of course, if we really believe that the intention was negative and their communication was not okay, find the right moment to have a sensible conversation.

Good intention alone isn’t good enough

A British TV personality recently posted on Twitter ‘I never meant to hurt anyone. I just didn’t care that I did.’ This is taken out of context and may have been ironic, but it chimes with those familiar retorts such as ‘It was only banter’ or ‘you know me, it’s just my way’.

As good communicators we need to know that what we think we said may not be what the other person heard. They will interpret our message through their own filters. Reflecting on how we come across: our tone of voice, the words we choose and our non-verbal cues all helps to understand our impact on our audience. Then tuning into their reactions, seeing ourselves through their eyes gives us further clues to how our communication has landed.

Feedback equals learning

If we learn that our communication has caused hurt or offense, we need to listen, understand and reflect to understand why. Did I use oppressive language? Did I come across aggressively? Did I cut the other person off? How could I have conveyed the same message better? We can then apologise and endeavour to work to do better next time. Becoming more self-aware and developing your communication skills takes time and effort but pays back in better relationships and more effective collaboration.

People managers also have some responsibility here. Who hasn’t heard ‘he’s really good at his job so we just need to accept he’s not a people person’? In other words, I don’t want to rock the boat by telling him he’s rude! These feedback conversations are challenging but if we don’t learn we don’t grow.

Intent equals impact

We all see the world through a different lens and experience each situation through our own filters but for communication to be effective its intent and impact should be as close as possible. Taking ownership of our communication and responsibility for how it lands is a good place to start.

“The most important thing in communication is hearing what isn’t said”

Peter Drucker

1 Comment

Unknown member
Jul 08, 2020

These short posts are gold dust, Cathy. Keep ‘em coming. Your writing style is pellucid, informative and effective. Thank you.

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