Overcoming an urge to slap his own forehead, Jesse realized that they'd wasted the past six weeks. Just to be sure, he asked, "Courtney, are you saying, for example, that the Tier 2 languages aren't needed until Q3 next year?"
"Yes. I don't know how to be clearer. No Tier 2 languages till Q3 next year." Courtney was cool on the outside, but really steamed inside. She looked across the table at Miguel, and nodding slightly, replayed in her mind what he'd said on the way over: "These guys are genetically incapable of delivering anything within a decade of the plan date."
"I see," Jesse continued. "When you said 'full compliance with the spec Rev 2.07,' we thought you meant 'full compliance with the entire spec Rev 2.07,' which included languages. Now I understand that you meant only 'full compliance with the networking spec Rev 2.07."
We can't control
what others do
with what we sayMix-ups like this cost real money. One small word — 'entire' vs. 'networking' — made all the difference. Here are some reasons why the receiver might not receive the message the sender sends:
- Wandering attention
- We get distracted, and don't listen carefully. Or sometimes, we don't feel the need to listen.
- We assume that our first interpretation is correct
- This can happen because we anticipate or have pre-set expectations. Sometimes receivers even "repair" the message they receive, because it makes no sense as received.
- Differences in usage
- Sender and receiver might use the language differently. Perhaps they're a different sex, or in a different profession, as Jesse and Courtney are, or have different native languages.
- Past associations
- Our personal history with concepts, people, procedures, or technologies can be misleading.
- Anticipated discounting or padding
- Receivers might discount estimates or promises, because of past experience with the sender or with others. Or senders, anticipating a discount, might inflate estimates or promises differently from the receiver's discount.
And sometimes we just make mistakes. It's all very frustrating, and tempers can flare.
Language is ambiguous. When we're stressed or hurrying to save time, we don't check carefully enough for unrecognized ambiguity. But we can reduce the effects of message mismatches if we keep two ideas in mind.
- We can't control what others do with what we say
- Once the words are out, it's up to the hearer (or reader) to interpret them. We'll feel better about unexpected interpretations if we give up the idea that we control how people interpret our words.
- Let others check it out
- When we hear, "Let me see if I've got this right," we sometimes feel as if our competence or integrity is in doubt. But if we can learn to interpret this as a simple verification of understanding, we gain a valuable tool for preventing misunderstanding.
And you can check it out, too. Whether you're receiving or sending, you can uncover message mismatches with examples, what-ifs, restatements, and even humor. Whenever you try, you'll almost surely uncover at least some tiny differences. The time to worry is when you don't. Top Next Issue
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More articles on Personal, Team, and Organizational Effectiveness:
- Encourage Truth Telling
- Getting to the truth can be a difficult task for managers. People sometimes withhold, spin, or slant
reports, especially when the implications are uncomfortable or threatening. A culture that supports
truth telling can be an organization's most valuable asset.
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- Have you ever regretted saying something that you wouldn't have said if only you had known just one
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- Many managers seem to operate as if their primary goal is to create toxic conflict among their subordinates.
Here's a collection of methods for sowing toxic conflict that can help bad managers become worse managers.
See also Personal, Team, and Organizational Effectiveness for more related articles.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming December 18: The Trap of Beautiful Language
- As we assess the validity of others' statements, we risk making a characteristically human error — we confuse the beauty of their language with the reliability of its meaning. We're easily thrown off by alliteration, anaphora, epistrophe, and chiasmus. Available here and by RSS on December 18.
- And on December 25: Disjoint Awareness
- In collaborations, awareness of how our own work might interfere with the work of others is essential. Unless our awareness of others' work — and their awareness of ours — matches reality, the collaboration's objective is at risk. Available here and by RSS on December 25.
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