Have you ever sent a text message only to have it misinterpreted by the person reading it? Happens all the time. Have you ever given a presentation that you were totally prepared for only to have it fall flat? Happens all the time. Have you ever had someone ask you something like, “Why are you mad?” when you were not at all mad? Happens all the time.
What is going on with these communications? The answer is the difference between knowing your message and delivering your message; those are two very different things.
Effective communication is about using both.
One of the main causes of miscommunication with the spoken word has little to do with the words themselves. Research done by Prof. Albert Mehrabian (UCLA) in the 1970s showed that people overwhelmingly interpret what someone says, not just by the actual words spoken, but by the speaker’s body language and tone of voice that accompany them. His famous breakdown, known as the “7–38–55 rule, suggests that when someone is ‘taking in’ your message, here is what their brain takes into account: 7% words, 38% sound, and 55% look. This doesn’t mean that the words aren’t important, but rather, if your sound and look do not match or support the words, the words will not be believed.
Think about it. If I walked into the room and told you that I was “happy to be here today and looking forward to working with you,” but I sounded as if I was already bored and this was taking up time that I could be using to do something else, you wouldn’t believe my words. If I spoke the exact same words while having a smile on my face, making eye contact with you, and behaving like I was genuinely looking forward to working with you, there would be no disconnect, and you would stay engaged.
We have a bad habit of just opening our mouths and responding or of opening our mouths and reciting something we memorized. When we do those things, we take the human component out of the mix, and we are left with only the words, which on their own, don’t mean a whole heck of a lot and can be easily misinterpreted.
There is nowhere that is demonstrated more perfectly than in texts or emails. When I only have words to convey a message, it is easy for those words to be misread. Why? Because, when you take out the human components of vocal tone and behavior, the words are just information without any meaning attached to them. When I only have words without any meaning accompanying them, I am going to read those words based on my current situation. In other words, if I’m having a bad day, they can be read one way and if I am having a great day, they can be read another way.
We do this all the time. The result? Miscommunication.
So what can you do to make sure your messages, words, and ideas don’t get misinterpreted? Two big things.
Take one breath and connect to your message
Take a breath before you open your mouth and think about how you feel about what you are about to say. Take just a moment to connect with your message. Is what you’re about to say a good thing? A bad thing? A suggestion? Are you speaking up to inform or to argue? Are you wanting to learn more about what someone else just said or are you ready to move on with the conversation?
By taking a moment to connect with how you feel about what you are about to say, your brain will help you with the appropriate tone of voice and behavior cues. When you don’t do this, you are on autopilot, and autopilot takes choice out of the mix. It causes you to react (autopilot) instead of respond (be intentional).
Use words that “set the tone”
When you are texting and emailing, feel free to include words that “set the tone.” For example, if I send you a text that reads, “I can’t handle that right now, you’re going to have to do it on your own,” that could be read as you don’t care, you don’t want to help, you are abandoning me or you are mad at me for even asking because you think I should have just taken care of it on my own to begin with.
WOW! That’s a lot of extra “stuff” to throw on top of a handful of words, isn’t it? But that’s exactly what happens. (Notice that nobody ever adds positive stuff, do they?) 😉
But, if I added just a tiny bit of context to my text (by taking a moment to think about it), it might completely avoid miscommunication and a bad situation. By doing this, I might type this instead, “I am so swamped right now, sorry. I know you can handle it! We’ll connect later,” none of those snarky or negative feelings accompany my message. I just ‘get it.’
When you start paying attention to the meaning behind your words, you can make choices in the moment that help your “audience” understand your message clearly the first time they hear or read it. That is what differentiates effective communicators from average communicators.