#21 Being Understood

by Steven Cerri on December 12, 2006

Being Understood

”Imagine Being Understood”

Good day!

Imagine… imagine what it would be like if whenever you communicated with anyone, you were… completely understood. Imagine what it would be like to say something to someone face-to-face, and… be completely understood. Imagine writing a memo or speaking on the phone and always being clearly and… totally understood. In fact, imagine the unthinkable… imagine sending an email and always, always have the recipient understand exactly what you meant in the email. No more misunderstandings. No more weird responses.

Alas, imaging all that is indeed a fantasy. It’s hard enough being understood when you are in front of someone talking to them, let alone have an email accepted and understood, as you want. It just doesn’t seem to be in the cards, does it? It seems to be… part of life.

I had this fact driven home to me last week, and so I’m writing about that experience in this blog. Even though I teach and coach communication excellence to technical professionals and managers, the issues that I coach and train on are so ingrained in our neurological makeup as human beings, that I still succumb to the mistakes we are all prone to.

Here is what happened. I’m completing a book on transitioning from technologist to technical manager and I’m currently talking to several possible editors for my book. I had been intermittently communicating to one potential editor, via email, for several weeks and then, due to other commitments, I hadn’t communicated with her for a couple of weeks. When we finally reconnected via email, we still did not know each other very well and so I hadn’t yet decided whom to engage as my editor.

The editor I’m speaking about here had sent me previous emails without a lot of “context”. In most communications, context is mostly made up of body language, voice tone, and other “non-verbal” cues that we pick up, often subconsciously, from the other person. It’s easy to pick up context in face-to-face communication and a little more challenging to do so in phone conversation, but very difficult in emails.

For example, below I’ve written the same phrase over and over again. I’ve made one of the words “bold and maroon”. As you read each phrase out loud, speak the bold word with emphasis and notice what happens to the meaning of the whole phrase. Here we go.

I didn’t steal your wallet.”

“I didn’t steal your wallet.”

“I didn’t steal your wallet.”

“I didn’t steal your wallet.”

“I didn’t steal your wallet.”

Now notice how the meaning of each phrase changes as you change the emphasized word. This is what I mean by “context”. The words, that is, the content, stayed the same, but because the “context” changed the meaning of the phrase changed.

Back to the email from my potential editor. So, after not communicating with her for several weeks, I sent her an email to reconnect and to tell her that I would not be making a decision regarding my editor selection until after the first of the year.

I then received an email from her in response to my email. In it, she made a reference to something that she had mentioned in a very early email, and that reference took me back to that early email. In the current email there was very little “contextual information”, it was mainly content.

Since there was very little context, and by that I mean, there were not a lot of messages about how I was supposed to interpret current her email, I was left to interpret her email on my own. Since she referenced a topic from a long-ago email, I decided (subconsciously) to establish the same context as the older email. And that context was a little confrontational. So because there were no new contextual cues I interpreted her current email based on the old context which was aggressive.

I decided to respond to her by referencing the aggressive “tone” of her email and indicated that I was surprised by her aggressive response. Within 15 minutes I received an email back from her indicating that she in no way intended to be aggressive and was merely telling me about some things that were going on in her life.

I had completely miss-read her email. I had looked for contextual cues, found none that I recognized and therefore made my own interpretation of the meaning of her email based on past contextual cues. (Fortunately, we were open enough in our communication that we could adjust our communication in near real time.)

Unfortunately however, this miscommunication is exactly what happens all too often in your world too. Doesn’t it? We send a message, and without spending sufficient time to establish the context so the person knows how to interpret our message, we leave it up to the receiver to decide how to interpret our message. And, as often as not, they interpret it incorrectly. This can be avoided if we will just spend the time to establish the context up front. In fact, those of you who have worked with me will remember this phrase;

“Send the content only when you’ve established the context within which it is to be interpreted.”

…………….or another way to say it is……..

“Don’t send the content until you’ve established the context”

The key is to understand that this will never go away. It happens to all of us. The key is to understand that it will happen and to keep the communication channels open. This is also why;

“The responsibility for effective communication rests with the sender of the message, because it is only the sender who knows what the message was intended to mean.”

The receiver doesn’t have a clue as to what was intended, only the sender does.

Be well

Steven Cerri

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