The burden of clarity in communication is on the “communicator.” Why? Because we can’t expect those who don’t study this topic to be as aware of the rules as you and I are. 🙂
Whenever I say this, invariably, someone says, “But Bob, the other person should also be responsible for that burden, as well.”
Invariably, my response will be, “You’re right, they should. However, since there’s a good chance they won’t be, you and I have a choice: we can either settle for a lack of clear, effective and persuasive communication with the other person knowing that it’s not totally our fault, or we can take on the responsibility and ensure that what we mean is what is heard.”
One way to ensure clarity in our communication is to be specific. Don’t make it any more difficult for the other person to understand what you are saying than is absolutely necessary. For example, had I taken my own advice, I would have used words other than “invariably” in the above two paragraphs. 🙂
The more specific we are in what we say, the less chance there is of a misunderstanding occurring. As Rosally Saltsman, author of Finding The Right Words asks, “How many arguments include the words, ‘But I thought you meant…’?”
Of course, as the receiver of the communication, it is also our responsibility to ensure that what we heard is what the speaker meant. Phrases that begin with words such as, “Just for my own clarification…” or “Just to make sure I understand you correctly…” seem to work like magic when it comes to making sure we are clear as to the speaker’s message.
The Sage, Hillel, said, “Do not make a statement that cannot be easily understood on the grounds that it will be understood eventually.” Though Hillel’s advice typically refers to a style of teaching, it holds just as true when communicating any message. Take no unreasonable chances that the person will not figure out what you meant by himself or herself.
As we’ve also discussed numerous times in this column, we each see and hear things through our own personal Belief System; our model of the world. That’s why, if clarity and understanding in communication is your goal, it’s so important to be specific when speaking and make sure of the same when listening.
So, remember; generally speaking . . . be specific.
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Great article, Bob!
One of my favorite quotes: “The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.” (George Bernard Shaw)
I also like what the Heath brothers (authors of “Made to Stick” (great book)) say about the “curse of knowledge.”
Communicating a message that is completely understood by every recipient is very difficult.
Being as specific as possible helps a lot. Keeping your communications short and simple help, too.
Some people are reluctant to write in a way that any 4th grader could understand (“That would be insulting their intelligence!”). But I’ve been writing for a living for many years, and I have never, ever heard anyone complain that something was “too easy to understand.” 🙂
Profound points, Bonnie. And, you being a marketer who is an expert writer would definitely know. Thank you for sharing, my friend!
Well said, Bob.
Adding to your excellent advice, I would say….”Generally speaking…be understood!”
What I mean is, often people get really specific on me – drilling down to infinitesimal detail – and I have no idea of the wider context. In that situation, I need the person to ‘be general’, not specific. Does that makes sense?
Perhaps the key is to know when to be specific and when to be general.
Love you blog, Bob.
Thank you, Robin. The purpose of being specific (in the context that I’m using it in this article) is in order to be sure you are understood and, from the other side, to be sure you are understanding the other person. So, yes, absolutely, if the person – despite being specific – is still not being clear (i.e. understandable) than that is still not productive. Whatever will result in clarity and understanding, that is what is necessary. Thanks again!
Yes! Just one example of lack of specificity – You are listening to a radio interview, and two people are communicating with each other- You listen for five minutes, wondering what they are talking about – Ever have that experience? – I want to reach through the radio and say “Could you let us (the folks you are talking to) know what the heck you are talking about? I just heard an interview and the host would say such things as “Be sure to let your Senator know to vote against it-send e-mails, make phone calls-” and the person being interviewed says – “I appreciate your saying that.” and I ask “Saying what?” What’s that? What’s it?
I’ll get a tweet saying “I totally agree with that.” and I wonder “What?”
Didn’t start to write a book here…but the thought occurs: Shall we abolish the use of “it” & “that” altogether? I don’t think so.
Otherwise we wouldn’t have Henry James’ final words: “So this is IT! that distinguished THING!”
LOL Great points…might be a sign of the times with a couple of those examples. 🙂
Timely reminder and solid advice, Bob.
I have a strong preference for face-to-face communication or at least telephone. Email is more challenging – lose all those verbal cues. And now in this fast world of social media, face book and twitter (mind those 140 characters!) that I’ve been dipping my toes into over the past couple years, I’ve have some experiences of failing at getting my point/intent across. This can be resolved with people who give the benefit of the doubt…and sadly quite messy with those who don’t.
Your note that we all have a personal belief system through which we hear is essential to remember in giving grace to others. Social media has taught me in a deeper way than ever before known that we have no idea where someone else is coming from or what they’re feeling…even when we think we do. The key is to listen. Ask Qs and listen some more. Every time I’ve forgotten this and jumped to any sort of conclusion, it has led to less for both communicators.
A great essay about the personal responsibility we hold in doing our best to ensure that what we mean is heard. Thanks!
Loved this post.
Thomas Leonard, considered by many to be the father of personal coaching, was constantly extolling the importance of our being precise and specific with our communications.
You and he both have it very, very right.
Soooooo, let me try to be precise and specific. Bob, I value our friendship because of the Go-Giver role modeling you consistently provide and because of the wisdom you impart through your speeches, books and social media participation.
Another great topic, well-explained, Bob. Just to address the specific point of taking responsibility, in my studies of NLP (neuro-linguistic programming) we learned several ‘presuppositions’. Presuppositions are concepts that we treat as true whether they are or not. So, basically we act as if they’re true without taking the time to analyze them every time we use them.
Anyway, the key presupposition of NLP that relates directly to taking responsibility for the clarity of your communication is – The meaning of your communication is the response you get. At first this really puzzled me because I was only thinking from my own perspective. “If I mean X and someone responds as if I said Y then, they’re wrong and this doesn’t apply.”
However, the key is to realize that my intended meaning may or may not be how the receiver perceives my communication. How they receive it determines their response and, from this perspective, determines what the communication means. The reason this is so important is the only reason we ever communicate is to get a response and when we take responsibility to be so clear and specific that we get the response we want our communication really serves us.
Of course, this requires us to honor and respect the beliefs, opinions, and perspectives of the listener so that we can adjust our communication to ‘speak into their listening’. You would never expect someone who only speaks French to understand your English. Just because your words and your listener’s words come from the same dictionary, doesn’t mean you’re speaking the same language.
Great topic post Bob.
Love your point Bonnie about making things “easy to understand”. I share your view. My preferred writing style is KISS. I find it makes the communication more personable. Plus, my having written oodles of academic stuff and legal documents over the years I can’t stand all that ‘clever’ and ‘stuffy’ writing which, quite frankly, isn’t necessary 95% of the time. In our day to day conversations and written communications we tend to use basic vocabularly, so why ‘edu’ it up?
Personally, I believe it’s TOTALLY the responsibility of the Sender of the communication (whether written, verbal or physical) to ensure that the message and its meaning is conveyed correctly to, and by, the Receiver.
Your point Bob that the Receiver should ask for clarity I totally ‘get’. To turn this around, it helps if the Sender also does this for the Receiver. When this happens, the Outcome of the communication is usually more positive i.e. both parties have clarity.
I’ve messed up many times in my communications (and continue to do so) when I do not take the time to cover off the ‘clarity’ element in the communication process.
Now, I’m off to buy some Dr Spock ears and a Mick Jagger pout.
The Entrepreneur Lawyer
(of the naked kind)
Author of The Naked Lawyer: RIP to XXX – How to Market, Brand and Sell YOU!
Bob, great article! A “Lack of Specificity” is one of “The 7 Deadliest Sins of Leadership & Workplace Communication” which I’ve written about in my white paper report – it’s available as a free download for anyone that would like to learn about the other 6 – its at http://www.HowToImproveLeadershipCommunication.com
Dave, that was indeed very specific…and very kind, indeed. I value your friendship, as well. And, your wisdom, encouragement and mentorship has been icing on the cake!
Jim, I agree with everything you wrote. I believe that would make a great teaching for one of your very terrific blog posts, as well!
Chrissie, excellent advice. Thank you for sharing!
Thank you, Skip. And, thank you for sharing with us!
Dr. Mollie, thank you for your profound message and teaching. So, so true!
Bob, So many problems arise in relationships because of a misunderstanding. If more people would learn to take your advice “Just for my own clarification…” or “Just to make sure I understand you correctly…”, a lot less misunderstandings would happen.
I find there’s so many interpretations to an e-mail. You think your words are clear and then you get a blast back. Your advice could be used in an e-mail situation as well. Communication is the key to all relationships, whether it be in person or on line.
Thanks for the great post.
Connie, thank you for your kind words, and your profound thoughts. And, yes, it’s very problematic in terms of email, which is why I often double-check, triple-check and quadruple-check before emailing something of any significance. It’s worth the time to do that.
Great post, Bob (and sorry for the delay). I do have a confession, at times I will slip on being specific in my communication because I do not want to appear aggressive or overbearing. Slight character flaw… But from reading your post and the quotes from Saltsman and Hillel, there is more damage done to not being specific. My focus should be on making certain the other person understands what I am saying instead of me being fearful of being offensive. Thanks again and keep us the good work!
Thank you, Chi Chi. The key is how you do it. Being specific in your communication should not be confused with being rude, aggressive or overbearing. It means kindly and tactfully making sure that what you meant to communicate is what was communicated and that it was understood as such. When you say that your And, when you say that your “focus should be on making certain the other person understands what I am saying instead of me being fearful of being offensive”…I would say that while you need not be “fearful” of being offensive, it’s fine to be cautious about it. You’re doing great, my friend!