Why you say one thing, but your colleagues hear something else

How many times have we heard (or said), “That’s NOT what I said”, yet the listener is saying, “that’s what I heard!”?

How does this happen? Why do we hear something different than the words that were spoken?

There are many reasons for this. Communication is complicated. When we are communicating, we are managing our own emotions, thinking about what to say (often when the other person is speaking…so we’re not really listening), managing our emotions (emotional regulation), navigating distractions, and the list goes on. These all impact HOW we hear the words that are said to us.  The non-verbal communication we notice unconsciously impacts how we hear the message and our interpretation of it.

Added to all that, in communication, especially in high pressure and difficult conversations, we make a lot of assumptions, so what was said gets clouded by these assumptions.

Whew! No wonder communication goes sideways fast sometimes.

Communication is woven through the Mental Health Commission of Canada’s factors of psychological health and safety in the workplace. For example, communication is:

  • A core foundation to an organization’s culture whether it be how you communicate verbally, the way in which policies and procedures are written and communicated, how challenges are dealt with and feedback is given … communication is woven through every aspect of culture.
  • Fundamental to civility and respect. Many workplace conflicts and complaints result from communication gone sideways, something communicated unprofessionally, miscommunication or assumptions in communication. When employees understand the expectations around communication, leaders model these standards, and, issues of bullying and microaggressions are dealt with effectively, the culture will be more psychologically safe.
  • Essential in understanding employees’ goals around growth and development. Leaders can foster employee growthy by communicating frequently and effectively with employees, and working collaboratively with them to set goals and monitor progress

To increase the likelihood of people hearing what we intend them to hear, we can:

  • Prepare for the conversation (check out the free playback of a panel discussion we hosted on exactly this topic here)
  • Ensure verbal communication and non-verbal communication is congruent
  • Slow the conversation down to ensure the person is with us in the dialogue instead of trying to catch up and stay with us
  • Manage our emotions
  • Carefully choose our words
  • Check in with the other person on what they are hearing and clarify misunderstandings in the moment

These actions will help ensure communication stays on track, misunderstandings are minimized or eliminated, and communication stress is reduced.