Grab a piece of paper. Seriously. Grab a piece of paper. Get a pen or pencil—anything you can use to draw on said piece of paper. Now, if you’d be so kind, draw a key. Draw a key. Do you have your key?
Please fold the paper up and keep it.
If you’re not alone and have others nearby, ask them to do the same.
Ask them to grab a piece of paper and a pen and draw a key. Don’t provide any additional explanations.
Is everyone done? Get all the drawn keys together and look. Are any two the same? Are any two remotely the same? Are there any you can even say resemble each other? We’re betting on a firm “no” – that there’ll be no two keys the same or even much alike. You can try this simple exercise with different people, and the results will be the same.
This simple exercise proves a complex concept in a simple, direct way: that meaning, just like beauty, is in the ear of the beholder. We attribute meaning to things in our ways. Be it due to personal experience or even preference, the way we interpret, see, or do something is not without its complex history and foundation.
We purposefully chose a simple word representing an object we (almost) all come into contact with every day. Our lives often revolve around our keys – do we know where they are? Did we forget them, leave them somewhere, or, heaven forbid, lose them? We use keys for houses, cars, desks, padlocks, and a whole range of other things that either let us in or keep us out.
And yet, such a simple, universal concept gives way to the most vastly unique interpretations. Each person draws what THEY think a key is. There is no way to map out what a key means to one person because deciphering that meaning would be almost impossible. It is just too complex. So, we must trust that the word key means more or less the same to everyone.
Nevertheless, that’s how we spend our days and manage our relationships, be they personal or professional. We think we all speak the same language, that it represents and conveys the same meaning, and that what we say will be understood and interpreted precisely the way we intend. More often than not, it won’t. When we realize that something went wrong along the way, it might be too late to correct it, and the consequences could be catastrophic. We use the same words but speak different languages.
Here’s a famous example of this: the Korean war, 1951. About 30 000 Chinese troops were going to try to take Seoul. They decided the best way would be to attack the Imjin River in a “human wave,” believing they could easily outnumber the approximately 600 British troops defending a nearby ridge. They were right.
The British Brigadier, Tony Brody, quickly called his superior, US General Robert H. Soule, for him to decide if they withdrew or stayed. The US General asked the British Brigadier what the situation was. The British Brigadier replied, “Things are a bit sticky, Sir.” The American General took that as meaning, “It’ll be tough, but we can fight back.” He ordered the troops to stay and not withdraw. But the English Brigadier truly meant, “It’s bad. We’re not going to make it”. The British followed orders and stayed to battle it out. Four days later, the Chinese won. Thousands of Chinese and approximately 60 British men died while five hundred British soldiers were captured. The battle had depended on that one phrase and the American General’s interpretation of it. The whole situation hinged not on what one person said but on how another person interpreted what they heard. The same words, but yet a different language.
Whenever you hear the maxim “communication starts with the sender, not the receiver,” this is what it means. When we communicate, we must guarantee that what we mean is what we say so that whoever receives our message does not put their twist on it. It’s one of the most challenging things to do (keys, remember?) in a fast-paced and unwaveringly busy world.
How do you get your message across and not get it tweaked by those you’re communicating with? You make sure YOUR intent is clear and understood. You not only say what you have to say but add what you meant by what you said. And then, to make extra sure, you can even ask who you’re communicating with to repeat the message to you in their own words. If the meanings coincide, success! If not, go back and see where the glitches are, iron them out, or rephrase what you meant until the message is crystal clear.
This may be tiresome and frustrating, but the results far outweigh the extra work. Making sure your intent is clear is always to your advantage. Making sure people take in what you mean can often be to their advantage.
If you look back at how often you have argued with a partner, friend, or family member and used the phrase “that’s not what I meant,” you might conclude that it might be a good idea to start using this process as soon as possible. Before the other person has time to decide what you’re saying and its meaning, you clear it up for them.
“I would like for you to help out more with house chores. This means I would like for you to handle the washing, walk the dog before dinner and check on the pantry for grocery shopping”. How many doubts and questions could this bring up? Very few, if any. “You need to do more around here.” How many doubts and questions could this bring up?
“We need to hit that Customer Satisfaction KPI this month.” This means we must follow up with new clients within 48 hours of purchase, update client databases and contacts daily, and guarantee the marketing team has all the information they need to include them in campaigns and promotions. That creates much more clarity than simply announcing, “we must reach the Client Satisfaction KPI this month. Get to it!”
When you purposefully explain the meaning of what you say to others, you’re guaranteeing everyone is on the same page. You can be confident about what you mean, even if you have to say it differently to get the message across.
Good, effective communication requires constant adaptation. Everything is feedback. Someone carrying out a request as you intended indicates you communicated it correctly, and, more importantly, the person heard and took on what you meant. On the other hand, someone not carrying out a request as you intended demonstrates that what you said was probably not what you meant, and you left the meaning attribution work up to the other person. Either way, you can work with this feedback to improve and grow.
Communication, meaning, and beauty are always in the eyes and ears of the beholder. By following a simple process of making sure words correspond to language, you can avoid all the nasty consequences misunderstandings, and misplaced meanings tend to bring. Adding more definitions to your words ensures you are understood as you intended.
Adjusting what you say and how you say it to what you mean will facilitate the message you want to get across, making your communication more effective. It takes a little more work, but it sure is worth it.
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