Thursday, February 23, 2012

Nine reasons why they didn't hear what you said

Hear no Evil by fernchoonet
Hear no Evil, a photo by fernchoonet on Flickr
"It drives me crazy that I have to say things over and over again for them to sink in!"  One of the most frustrating aspects of being a manager, parent, spouse, etc. is feeling sometimes like you're talking into thin air, words dropping on the ground like so many pebbles.  The supposed recipient of your message goes on his or her merry way, apparently unaffected and uninfluenced by your message.  Why does this happen?
  1. They were in the middle of another task or another thought process and so had too much interference in the form of brain noise for your message to penetrate.
  2. They didn't understand what you said.  Your words might have been too big, or your syntax (word arrangement) was too confusing.  Or you might have buried four words of message in the center of four paragraphs of words, making the core message hard to discern.
  3. They weren't sure that you meant what you said.  This can be a product of prior communication, where you changed your mind, or where you made a pronouncement and didn't follow up or follow through to make sure that it really happened.  If you communicated in a highly emotional state, they might have interpreted your words as venting rather than instruction.
  4. They didn't remember that you said it.  People are bombarded with so much information that zip!  In it goes - and right back out again.  The message has become part of the background.  Spaced repetition (5-6 times over 5-6 days) will help them remember more than half. Really.  One time means they lose 25% of it by tomorrow, half by the next day, and by 16 days will have lost 98%.  And it might not be the most beneficial 2% that's left.
  5. They can't take information in that way.  Some (most) people are visual processors, not auditory, so unless you back up your information in other modes (visual, kinesthetic) they are not going to get the message.
  6. They have attitudes about you and whatever you say.  People have habits of thought about other people, and the precedent of your prior interactions with them might leave your recipients less likely to be paying attention to you.  This might speak to your credibility, honesty, likability, authority, or a multitude of other contributors.  This is probably the most difficult to influence in the short run, but you can begin to affect it over a series of transactions.
  7. You have attitudes about them, and the likelihood that they will be affected by your communication.  You may mumble, or catch them while you're on the run, or you might not like them enough to try too hard to get through to them. This is how some people lose the political battle in companies.  They become outsiders, uninformed by the real information, and so they operate in a vaccuum.
  8. You didn't actually say it.  You might have thought it, or you might have said it to another group of people.  It might feel to you like you have said the same thing over and over again, but you never said it to THEM.  If you work in a big company with several different constituencies, the odds of this happening go up.  You need process and structure to make sure that you have established venues for your communication.
  9. They are tired of the one-way communication street.  They have ideas too, you know.  Perhaps you can ask instead of tell, and you'll achieve an awesome result by unlocking their buy-in.  People tend to like their own answers best.
There are a lot of variables associated with whether your message got through or not, but ultimately the test is whether or not they chose to change their behavior as a result of what you said.  Communication and resulting behavior change is a responsibility shared between the recipient of the message and you.  You might not be managing the process effectively, or you might be sending just fine and the issue is on the other end of the transaction.  You can be completely clear about the fact that you don't want me eating peanut butter on my toast in the morning, but I am likely to choose to ignore you.  I like peanut butter more than I like pleasing you in this regard.  (you get the idea.)

Expect that you will have to try again.  But remember before you get too frustrated that your goal is to affect behavior change.  Be specific about exactly what you want, and what the purpose of the communication is.  Verbalize the behavioral ground rules, like "I'm sharing my opinion here, and you can work out how to get it done," versus "Here's what I want done, and I want it done by this Friday at 3 p.m."

There is almost nobody who gets communication right all of the time.  The best communicators, though, are always working on getting better.  And they work on staying self-aware and intentional when they are doing it.  This could be you.  You could be even more awesome than you are right now.


LJ said...

A really interesting piece. I think sometimes it is easy to focus on the role of communicator rather than receiver. I'll have to remember the tips you've mentioned!

Julie Poland, certified business coach said...

LJ -

I am asked frequently, "Who has responsibility for a beneficial interaction - the sender or the receiver?" Of course in this post the focus was on the sender. But the answer I usually give to the question is "Whichever one YOU are." The art of good listening might be even more of a challenge to achieve than that of effective sending.

LJ said...

I agree! I know that people say we have two ears and one mouth and should be used in that ratio - but it's easier said than done! I know I ramble a lot - more from 'thinking-out-loud' than really meaning to communicate - so that's something I need to work on. I think the nine points you've posted are really worth thinking about - maybe I should print them out and put them in the front of my folder for important meetings etc!