On what you say and what they hear

Wouldn’t it be nice if people understood just what you said and what you meant, regardless of the way you said it? If they assumed the best of you, and they knew you were trying to think of others, and that you had everyone’s best interests at heart? In the most ideal world, this would be the case. But in the real world, we have to craft our messages to others carefully, and we have to do our best to help them understand our meaning. Even when we do that, we can’t be sure that we have been successful, until the person we are communicating with feeds back their understanding to us.

We can send a message, and believe we are sending it very clearly; however, the message that is received could be completely different from that message we intended to send. And it isn’t always our fault! We are only one half of the equation where communication is concerned!

In Oral Communications 101, we learn about this. We learn that communication is a two-part process. Communication is made up of both the message you send and the message that is received. We are responsible for sending our message as clearly as possible. But we can’t always be responsible for the way this message is received!

When we send a message, we have to take in to account the following:

  1. Prior knowledge – does the person receiving the message have the proper schema to assimilate the message that you intend to send? If not how can you build this?
  2. Bias – is the person emotionally open to the message you are sending? How does this message contradict any deeply held beliefs the person may have? How can you neutralize the message so that it doesn’t interfere with moral standings?
  3. Credibility – does the person receiving the message believe you are a credible source? If not, is there any way to build that credibility with the receiver?
  4. Vocabulary – is the person capable of understanding the message as you are presenting it? If not, can you break it down more so that they can?

I am sure that communications experts would list many other factors that can interfere with reception of a message. The four above are the ones that I have experienced and identified most frequently when dealing with students (e.g. vocabulary) or colleagues (e.g. bias).

Recently a good friend asked on Facebook what to do when you have offended someone but you don’t know what you did. You can only tell by their actions that you offended them – they are snubbing you or acting angrily toward you.

I like to try to live by the four agreements: (and I am paraphrasing)

  1. Always do your best

  2. Be true with your word

  3. Never make assumptions

  4. Nothing is personal

In communicating and relationships with others, I find that these four agreements help me. If I do number 2 and 3 as I communicate, and remember number 4 then I feel sure I have done number 1.

That is – if I am true with my word, and don’t assume I know others’ motivations, beliefs or reactions ahead of time, and then I remember that their reaction isn’t about me, but rather is about their past experience, their world view and beliefs, then I can feel sure I have done my best.

Now this doesn’t mean that the things I say are always received well. I try to build prior knowledge and credibility prior to delivering a message – but sometimes it doesn’t work or it completely backfires on me. When that happens, I just have to continue to remember number 4 – nothing is personal. It feels personal. Certainly in the worst case I am attacked in a very personal way – but it wasn’t personal.

As human beings we are all tragically flawed. We can’t be perfect in the messages we send. As much as we try to act through love and for the in the best interests of all, none of us are Mother Theresa. There was just one of her. So our messages are flawed in ways we can’t even recognize. When those become clear to us through the actions of others, it’s best to consider that, meditate on it, be open to it, and try to learn from it. Whatever the outcome, it doesn’t do any good to blame ourselves. Every day, we simply need to wake up and again do our best.


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