How to avoid hidden messages and misunderstandings

browningyork Change, Communication audiences, Communication lessons, General communication, Planning

Hidden messagesHidden messages can pop up anywhere. I once had to explain to a client that if she chose only to publish details of what external stakeholders thought of her project and not the views of her staff, she would be sending out the message that her employees’ opinions weren’t important.

Similarly, if she published only glowing reports from employees, when they knew the reality was not entirely positive, she would also be communicating something other than the words we printed – namely, that her communications were not to be trusted.

Thankfully, she took my advice and we went with a balanced piece of mixed opinions, showing that all views are important and she was honest enough to show that it’s not all good news.

This got me thinking about the many levels of messaging that are involved in communication. For example, there’s the messages you think you’ve given; the straight-forward, literal meaning of the words you use; what your audience thinks you’ve said; what they think you meant; ‘accidental’ messages…

It’s no wonder communication so often goes wrong when there’s all this going on!

The messages you think you’ve given – be really clear in your own mind about what you want to say because if you start waffling or losing track yourself, then others won’t stand a chance of following you. Keep it simple to reduce the possibilities of creeping meaning or misunderstanding from others.

The straight-forward, literal meaning of your words – you might think this is about the dictionary definitions of the words you choose to use. But consider phrases such as ‘it was quite clear what you bought at the shop’; this could either mean that it was completely clear what you bought OR it could mean that it was partly clear, but I’m not totally sure.

Not always so straight-forward, or indeed so literal, after all! So again, keep it simple to avoid misunderstandings.

What your audience thinks you said – there is only so much control you can have over this, but taking time to understand your audience before you communicate will really help. By getting to grips with who they are, what they know and what’s important to them, you’ll stand a much better chance of aligning your messages with what they will hear.

What your audience thinks you meant – this is also a tricky one to master completely, but having trust in place will help. If they don’t trust the person who is giving the message, they are far more likely to believe there is a hidden meaning.

Make sure that the culture you are operating in is one of trust and honesty – do everything you can to foster this openness, then there will be less reason for them to believe you meant something other than what you said.

‘Accidental’ messages – these are most common in situations of uncertainty and change, where people are actively looking for hidden messages. They may put 2 and 2 together and make 5.

For example, you may decide to invite everyone to an off-site meeting to announce an exciting new investment programme, but if you use the meeting room at a local hotel which you last used to announce redundancies, the invite will probably carry the (inadvertent) message that there’s more bad news on the way.

Consider communications from other perspectives as well as your own to avoid accidental misunderstandings.

Communication planGetting the messaging right is a tricky business, but with a little planning and a lot of thought, it can be done. This should help to align what’s going on – it’s when there are mismatched messages that things can get messed up.

Until next time

Sarah