Category Archives: understanding

"That’s Not What I Meant!"

Impact – Not Intent – Is What Matters

Most of the time, we really don’t want to irritate or upset the people with whom we communicate. Misunderstandings and hurt feelings happen anyway, and we have our own personal syntax that shows up in how we respond to them.

In a conversation at O’Reilly Media’s Web 2.0 Summit last week, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg spoke about how they are managing privacy and user control issues as Facebook becomes nearly ubiquitous. It provided an interesting angle on the impact of our communications on other people.

On Facebook or any electronic messaging system, you make judgments about who will want to receive what messages. The Web 2.0 Summit discussion focused on who gets to control ‘opting in.’

If your friend wants to send you something – or put you into a group where any group member can send you something – the friend is gauging what you want to receive.

This weekend I received about 20 messages in a language I don’t speak, because a friend included me in a group of mostly Croatian psychologists. It was a curiosity, not a nuisance, to me, illustrating the ripples we send across our global network. If it multiplied I would for sure be opting out!

On Facebook, we can opt out, often without letting the sender know. We may have to set controls in order to keep some sanity in our inboxes. Our friends may or may not know whether or how their messages are received.

At a personal level, when we are communicating face-to-face or voice-to-voice, we are gauging our listener’s interests and state of mind as we express ourselves. People may opt out and we can probably tell when they do!

Whatever our intention, sometimes others will respond in an unexpected and possibly unhappy way. It’s part of being
human that we can’t always gauge how our listener will take something.

A big differentiator of mature communicators is being accountable not just for your intention, but for the impact on the other person.

A friend confided in me about a breakdown in a new dating relationship. When the guy insisted she had confirmed a date that was only tentative in her mind, she checked with a third party who heard the conversation to ensure that she remembered it correctly. Even though she was right, he hadn’t heard it that way.

Surely, if he consistently hears something she hasn’t said, she may want to opt out altogether. In the short term, what is important is the impact, not her intention.

Being right in this case would just continue a dispute that is probably unnecessary. Right and wrong are pretty much irrelevant in misunderstandings. What’s relevant is to clear it up going forward, not going backward.

As you spend time with people you know well this week, you may want to be especially aware of your impact. If you hear yourself beginning to defend your intention, “That’s not what I meant,” consider reframing and putting your attention on what the other person received. That is what will determine how the communication proceeds from there.

To get the ball rolling, a gentle, “What did you hear me say?” (NOT accusatory, please) can tell you what the meaning of your communication was for the other person.

For good communication, it’s impact, not intention, that matters.

Listen with Your Senses – to Morgan Freeman

Neurolinguistic Programming, or NLP, teaches us to listen with our senses; that is, to hear the specific words people say that tell us the sensory system they are using.

We speak in seeing, hearing, and feeling terms that actually represent how we are thinking. If you listen with awareness of sensory systems, you can appreciate the diversity of our personal syntax.

This week, the insightful TV interviewer, Charlie Rose, had actor Morgan Freeman on his show, talking about what it was like to play Nelson Mandela in the new movie Invictus.

To the conscious listener, Freeman gave an elegant demonstration of how his senses inform his work.

When asked how he observed Mandela to get into the character, he said it wasn’t anything he saw or heard. He asked Mandela if he could hold his hand. He said he could not explain or intellectualize it. He could feel the quiet inside.

Later in the interview, he described getting into another character, a principal who inspired students. Freeman had learned the technique with that principal. He held his hand and could feel huge amount of energy going on inside. Feeling that charge allowed him to step into the role. The change in the actor’s demeanor was visible as he spoke of this. Several times he mentioned that he couldn’t put what he knows kinesthetically into words (and then, being a brilliant person, he did anyway).

He talked about approaching Clint Eastwood to direct Invictus, and when asked why Eastwood, he said “His feel for storytelling. I don’t know how to tell you what that is.. He just knows when a scene is dragging…” giving another example of his strong kinesthetic (feeling) system.

Later, Freeman talked about a peak experience of an acting day with Matt Damon, saying it was the “connection” between them that was so memorable.

Morgan Freeman conveys great depth of emotion as an actor. Listening to him speak and watching how he responds to questions illuminates the personal syntax that makes his talent possible.

You may want to try listening to people’s personal syntax with this filter: are they using words that indicate seeing, hearing, feeling? In what sequence? Do not categorize people as either visual, auditory, or kinesthetic. We all use all systems, in different sequences and priorities.

If I say “I have to get a feel for what you are saying before I can picture it,” I am really telling you how I think and how I can best receive information at the moment.

Whether you are a manager, colleague, teacher, or parent, it’s worth knowing how each person’s way of processing – their personal syntax – reveals their talent and special kind of intelligence. The first step is to hear, then to practice flexibility in your own speech, to match the sequences used by the other person.

You can learn more about this in our book Smart Work, or by taking a SYNTAX course, or by researching NLP resources online. Having the distinctions of sensory representations is both entertaining and extremely helpful in making choices as we work and live with other people.

Check it out, especially the next time you have a chance to watch a master talk about his or her work.