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Is the Message You Are Sending the Message Received?

Three Case Studies of Communication Mishaps

By Deborah Rinner Godwin

Communications wrought with misunderstanding are nothing new. In fact they happen daily, often very unintentionally. Words spoken can have differing meanings to differing ears and minds. Words once used to applaud someone can be spun into indicators of fault when the relationship is threatened. There are thousands of ways communication can take a turn south, and turn out less than positive. Here are three case studies. The third, being a presidential one, reminds us communication mishaps happen in places you would imagine we would know better. Have you ever seen these in your workplace or personal life?

Case One: Let Me Call You Sweetheart . . .

Has anyone ever assumed too much familiarity in their verbal communication with you or someone you know? Words and the tone they are delivered in have a lot of power, but nothing weakens them more than when they are used inappropriately. Picture this: You are waiting in the drive up lane of a new coffee shop. When it is your turn to order your latte, you are greeted with “What can I get you hon? Do you want skim in that hon? Thanks sweetie, see you at the window.” Knowing full well the voice on the other end of the window has never met you, and cannot possibly know if you indeed conduct yourself like someone referred to as sweetie or hon, you begin to feel a bit uncomfortable. What are they up to? Is the familiarity assumed supposed to make me feel like a regular here? Do I want to be a regular here? After paying for the latte and hearing two more hons and a bye sweetie, do you ever want to go back? All you wanted was a latte. Someone innocently and intentionally was trying to be nice with words and tone, but was that the message received? Or did they unintentionally communicate a message peppered with patronizing that was received with mild skepticism - making the latte suddenly seeming less desirable?

Case Two: What Do “You Guys” Think?

Gender issues in the workplace have been examined through news articles, film (remember the classics Nine To Five with Dolly Parton or What Women Want with Mel Gibson?), literature, legal cases and discussion for years. Exposing these issues has resulted in an attention to gender being formally taken out of the workplace as a consideration in how people are treated. Yet it crops back up in business communication. Have you ever received an email addressed “Gentlemen:”? Or “Ladies:”? They are out there and in fact they are “out there” in terms of political correctness in today’s business environment. Addressing in a gender specific way in a written or verbal communication is a thing of the past. Rank and precedence rule in business protocol, not age and/or gender. Yet we still hear “What do you guys think? Should we ask the ladies? Do the gentlemen care to go to lunch?” etc., etc., etc., Opening up our language choices to be inclusive, non gender specific, and free of assumptions creates communication that can reach and be received well by everyone, reflective of the value we place on the receiver’s professionalism and our own.

Case Three: The High Price of Fuel

Even amongst skilled statesmen, rifts and valleys of unproductive communication can ensue. So it was with U.S. presidents John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. Although friends in their early careers in 1770, by the close of the century they were rivals. Interestingly enough, the rivalry subsided by the end of their lives and they died close friends once again. Communication added fuel to the rifts and also ended them.

Drafting the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson relied on Adams as a vital contributor. Good communication between the diplomatic Jefferson who preferred to work behind the scenes and the self assured Adams who was direct in speaking worked well in fulfilling the goal. Their communications and friendship developed even more so as they became diplomats in Europe. Many letters between them proved the fact they worked well together and appreciated their differences . . . until their relationship began to strain.

As they began to view the world in differing ways, they began to discredit each other, many times criticizing in each other the very thing they once applauded. Letters to others holding negative comments about the other created a decades long silence and divide, furthered by the unspoken ambition of each of them to hold office. Hold office they did, Jefferson following Adams, but the silence between them prevailed until they had each reached their seventies.

At the age of seventy five, Adams broke the silence by writing a conciliatory note to Jefferson and their friendship and communication revived for fifteen years, all the way until July 4th, 1826, the day they both died. That day was not only the fiftieth anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, but a testament to the power of honest communication. At the end of their lives they were said to have written 158 letters discussing everything they agreed on, not dwelling negatively on the events they held differing views on, and acknowledging where they felt they had been unfair or wrong in their estimation of each other. At the end, their relationship was said to illustrate a clear give and take. One did not need to dominate the exchange. They were in it to understand rather than discredit.

Hopefully it does not take a lifetime for most of us to get it right with regard to communication. One wonders how much more powerful or influential these statesmen might have been if they had been able to communicate throughout their lives the way they did at the end. Would they have accomplished even more for themselves and the country they both cared passionately about?

We can learn from communications gone wrong. What would the effect be if we could address people without respect to gender, or without communicating assumptions or judgments? What message would be received if we were really careful to care about how we were communicating to or about who we were communicating to or about? Every single time? I am going to think about that one over a latte.

Source: Changing Minds, The Art and Science of Changing Our Own and Other Peoples Minds, Howard Gardner, Harvard Business School Press, 2006