Your communication style

If they don’t understand me it’s their fault!

‘But that’s not what I meant!’

‘But, I can’t be held responsible for how they interpret what I say!’

‘If they choose to misinterpret what I say, that’s hardly MY problem, is it?’

Or worse still…

“I’m a plain-speaking guy/gal – I just tell it like it is…”

You’ve heard the comments – and perhaps made similar ones yourself… They have a common theme: “I don’t have to be responsible for how my communication is received.  I just make it up any old way and say it. It’s their job to understand and if they don’t it’s not my problem!”

Behind the thinking is a rather touching belief that it’s enough to cobble together a few words that encompass, for you, what you have on your mind and then say them – and expect to be understood.  But things are not that simple…

We each interpret things differently

If I say ‘dog’ what occurs in your mind? You have a thought or two and this will include an image of a dog. The person sitting next to you will have a different picture – of the same dog or a different one.  The same occurs if I say the word car, or cooker, or garden. Our internal images will be different – mine from yours and yours from those of others listening to me.

These are all tangibles or concrete words. What if I add abstract words like beautiful, or justice, or improvements? Now the way in which my listeners interpret what I say will differ to an even greater degree.

For example, each person’s version of what ‘beautiful’ means is likely to be very different. Even though we are speaking the same language we are interpreting the words and phrases differently.

Why we interpret differently

Misinterpretation occurs for many reasons. Our moods colour what we see, hear and feel. Our ability to pay attention to what is being said will vary from day to day and from person to person – and will depend on what else is going on in our lives. And our feelings about the speaker will affect how we hear and interpret them.

Too much talk – too little time to think

Misinterpretation also occurs because of how the speaker ‘delivers’ their message. Have you had that experience, while talking to someone, of looking into their eyes and suddenly realising that you were all alone! They’d gone out to lunch in the middle of your monologue! Their body was still there but you could see from their eyes that mentally they were somewhere else!

Sometimes this is because the other person has a lot of things on their minds. Often it is our fault – we’ve simply been talking too much and not giving the listeners time to evaluate or think about what we’ve said.

People need time to go inside and register what you say – especially if it is important. If you carry on talking while they are doing this they simply will not hear you – or will stop thinking in order to listen with the result that little of what you say registers.

Message intended vs. Message received

Not taking responsibility for how you communicate and how your message is received is sloppy and disrespectful. I have listed above some of the ways in which slippage occurs between message intended and message received.

If you truly believe that what you say is important make sure it is received accurately. Otherwise why bother to say it in the first place?

If you truly believe that the person with who you are communicating is important enough to you to want them to understand you then communicate in a manner that makes it easy for them to understand you. Otherwise why bother communicating with them?

4 Tips for clearer communication

Here are 4 ways of the many ways of reducing the slippage between message intended and message received.

1. Allow them time to think

Allow other people the time to register what you say, to consider it and then make their response (which can be in words or in body language). Avoid overpowering them with an endless flow of words.

2. Put yourself in their shoes

It is easy to assume that we are coming across to others as we intend. This is a dangerous assumption. We may be coming across in a quite different way. Discover what it is like to be on the receiving end of how you communicate.

To do this replay some recent conversations with a range of different people and in different situations. How did you come across in each of these? As considerate? Or bullying? Thoughtful? Boring? Sincere? Dismissive? Genuinely interested in your listener?

Begin developing the habit of momentarily stepping into the other person’s shoes during conversations. Do this very briefly. Imagine you are them – standing or sitting over there and looking at and listening to yourself! What it is like to be on the receiving end of your communication?  And ask friends to frankly tell you how they think you come across, too.

3. Respond to their responses

Benjamin Disraeli mentioned someone being ‘inebriated with the exuberance of his own verbosity’ – avoid the temptation to become so enthralled with what you have to say that you could come across as dismissive or uninterested.

We have all been in the situation of being ‘talked at’ where the speaker carries on regardless of our views or comments. Make sure you don’t fall into the trap of carrying on regardless. Respectfully acknowledge their verbal comments and their non-verbal responses. And use these to adjust what you say and how you say it.

4. Watch their non-verbal messages

A major tool in avoiding misinterpretation is to pay attention to the other person’s non-verbal responses to you. Go for the totality of small clues from their eye contact pattern, head nods, gestures, voice tone, etc. Are they still in agreement or have you lost them? Are they paying full attention or have their eyes glazed over because they are still perplexed about something you said earlier in the conversation?

Other non-verbal clues include:

  1. Skin colour: this changes continuously during conversation depending on their emotional response. The changes are subtle but they are there to see if you watch for them.
  2. Pupil size: when people are emotionally involved pupil size increases. Pupils contracting often indicates disinterest.
  3. Minimal gestures: slight hand or feet movements can give a lot away. They can often be involuntary releases of tension. Precisely what they mean will depend on the situation and on the person with whom you are conversing but, as an example, small jerky movements can often be a sign or disinterest, irritability or impatience.
  4. Voice changes: the rate of speech, tone, volume, steadiness, etc. of a person’s voice provides rich information about how they are feeling.

Make it 2-way communication…

Paying attention to all of these while also speaking and listening requires that your full attention is on the other person and on how they are responding – and are continually adapting and adjusting how you communicate to ensure they fully understand you.

This is 2-way communication. Response-able communication. You are being responsive to the other person, instead of talking at them, and are ensuring that what you say is being accurately understood.

The added value…

Many people have found that this responsive, 2-way communication has a spin off – they forget about themselves and become more relaxed, spontaneous and responsive.  Why? Because it is the opposite to being self-conscious – it is being other-conscious…


From the Pegasus NLP Newsletter – Issue 15: 7 November 2000.

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By Reg Connolly

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