Hint: Not what you are actually saying.
This could be a problem if you spend much time talking, but here are five tips that will help you get your message across clearly:
1. People Listen from the Context of Their Own Beliefs
Before you even open your mouth, they already have an idea of who you are, what you think of them, what your agenda is, and what you want from them. Whatever words come out of your mouth will be automatically “fit” into their existing paradigm.
For example, if you walk by someone’s desk and casually say, “Hi, how’s the work on the x project going?” the employee who is petrified that you think he does horrible work and are looking for the next excuse to fire him hears “I’m watching you – you better watch out.” The employee who feels like a star player hears “I can’t wait to see your results – I know they’ll be great.” The employee who sees you as a friend and boss hears “How are you doing, do you need my help?”
2. Clarifying and Repeating is Never a Waste of Time
I’ve heard countless stories of meetings that went great, but end with no follow up. In the effort to end the meeting on time, everyone leaves and unresolved issues remain unresolved. This is NOT a pitch to run meetings late and resolve issues; instead, STOP the meeting 5 minutes before ending time and clarify what decisions were actually made, what follow up can actually be done, and what is still on the table for further discussion at some other time.
This practice works equally well for one on one conversations, both personal and professional.
As a parent, “Just to clarify, if you do all the chores on the check list without a reminder this week, you can have your friend over Saturday night, and if I need to remind you to do them, we spend Saturday night here by ourselves. Is this what you heard?” And, it can never hurt to write it down if you have reason to expect an argument later.
3. The Less you Say, the More they Hear
People don’t pay attention to anything longer than a tweet. It’s easy to want to explain the background, especially if it was critical to your own thinking process. The problem is that if you say too much, what’s important gets lost in the background explanation, and they either remember absolutely NOTHING, or some insignificant detail that has nothing to do with your core message.
Decide what’s important, say that, and keep the background in case you need it.
4. Tone Conveys More than Words
Watch your tone especially when you write, when you are being funny, and when you are tired, frustrated, anxious or impatient.
You think you are just getting something off your chest; they hear your tone and interpret it as you are “being” rude, arrogant, disrespectful, and inconsiderate.
This leads down an insidious path, because what trustworthy person would “be” rude, arrogant, disrespectful, or inconsiderate? It doesn’t matter what you intended or who you think you were being. If your tone has an impact that you are not aware of, you will be making enemies and never know it.
Keep a neutral tone whenever you can. Practice it.
Never talk when you are tired, sarcastically amused, frustrated, or otherwise emotional. Can’t help it? Then make sure to circle back and check with people to make sure they didn’t misinterpret your intentions.
5. Relationships Weigh More than Words
If you work on your relationships with people two things happen: One, they interpret what you say in positive terms, and two, when you mess up they forgive you.
Some people are so focused on getting tasks done, they “don’t have time” to work on their relationships, especially with difficult people.
But working on your relationships takes much less time than you would imagine (especially if you have a coach), and it usually frees you up from time spent resolving issues, clearing up miscommunications or working “around” difficult people.
Give it a try – you might find that you actually get more done and have more time as a result!