I’m sure it’s happened to you:
You’re in a normal conversation with someone, everything is going well, you say something perfectly straightforward or helpful or appropriate…
… When suddenly, out of left field, you get the most bizarre reaction, usually something with lots of emotion behind it.
Anger, resistance, objections, blame, self-pity… can be any kind of thing – but it’s definitely not what you expected, and things seem to have broken down.
“Have you considered trying XYZ” is met with “Stop telling me what to do!”
“Yeah I used to make that mistake too, but I learned my lesson”, gets a “Yes I know, you’re so damn perfect!”
“Oh, that sounds like a pretty rough situation to deal with… if I can help in any way” receives a “I can handle it on my own, thank you very much!”
Or, the other day, when a friend asked me to help market his father’s invention.
This friend and I, we go back 25 years, and rather often, we end up in dire miscommunication. Which means that I don’t know if I can help with the project – if my friend and I keep ending up in misalignment and arguments, how much help can I give?
So I told him: “I don’t know if I can actually help”, to which he replied with defeat: “Oh, well then I guess not”.
In all situations like that, when a reaction you get is completely unlike what you expected, ask yourself:
What did they hear me say?
My friend heard “I don’t think I can help you”, when that was not what I said, or indeed what I meant. I just wanted to open up a side-conversation, about the way he and I tend to communicate.
But that’s not what he heard – and the crux of the matter is that what is being said is never as relevant as what is being heard.
After all, no matter how good or useful your message may be… if someone hears something different, your message is lost.
And of course you can blame the other for misinterpreting, but what good does that do? They reacted to the best of their abilities, with the means available to them, based on the information they have and heard (or, think they heard). Blaming them for not listening or not getting the point does no good.
What does do good, and lots of it, is asking yourself ‘what did they hear?’, and then finding a way to deliver your message in a way that enables them to get what you actually meant.
That’s your job, as a communicator: to find the method and approach that enables the other to get your point.
And in business, you’d better pay attention to this, because it’s very easy to lose a sale just because someone heard something different than what you said.
If ever you see someone get defensive, or shut down, or protest, or give an unexpected reaction in any way, ask yourself (or even better: ask them): What did they hear me say?
Also published on Medium.