Everyone has played the game of telephone. Not telephone tag in which you and someone else keep exchanging voicemails: telephone. You whisper a sentence to someone next to you who repeats it to the person next to them and so on until the message comes back to you. Inevitably, what you said is not what someone heard. In fact, it’s quite possible that the message is completely different when it comes full circle.
You don’t need to be playing that game to have this happen. What we say isn’t always what people hear. You may not have malice, you might be telling a joke. They might hear it as threatening or as disgust. When the cook asks you how you liked supper and you smile and say “it was pretty good” they might be hearing “I didn’t like it at all but I want to be polite.” When you tell a salesperson that you don’t think you need what it is they’re selling, the good ones hear “I can convince you” instead of the firm “no” you were unable to say for some reason.
Listening is a critical business skill. That said, people are often distracted as we speak to them. Maybe the phone buzzed; maybe they are thinking about their last email or meeting. Because of that, making sure that the message we meant to convey to the listener is what they heard is just as critical a skill. We must think about how what we’re saying or presenting could deliver an unintended message.
For example – Malaysia Airlines recently ran a contest in which they invited travelers from New Zealand and Australia to answer the question, “What and where would you like to tick off on your bucket list, and explain why.” It offered them the chance to win an Apple iPad or return trip to Malaysia. Message received? Well, since a “bucket list” is composed of things one wants to do before one dies and the airline has lost two planes recently, any association with death is probably not the message you want people to hear. You say win something; they hear that you are insensitive.
One trick I’ve learned when I have any doubt about if what I’ve said was heard as meant is to ask someone to repeat it back to me. Obnoxious? There is that risk, but in my mind the risk of being misunderstood is far greater since we’ll never know until the message comes back around. Speaking and writing clearly are table stakes in business. Getting people to hear you clearly is part of those skills.