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A Message Sent is Not Always a Message Received

As a leader, do you find that you have to repeat yourself constantly because no matter how many times you explain and re-explain things, it feels like your team isn’t hearing what you have to say? You’re not alone.

What’s the deal? Why is your team failing to pick up what you’re putting down?

Well, there are a few reasons. For one, none of us can be our best when we’re stressed, and the last two years have been pretty stressful. When we’re stressed, we’re less attentive to how we communicate, leading to more miscommunication. But it’s not all stress. There are other brain-science-backed reasons why it seems like your team is struggling to hear you.

Our Brains Have Minds (and Biases) of Their Own

While we physically listen with our ears, we process what we hear with our brains, and our brains use our past experiences and biases to contextualize and process input. We all have unique brains that have been shaped and formed by our own past experiences. As a result, how we interpret and interact with our surroundings can be completely different.

It’s why two people at the same event hear or see things differently.

Cultural and language differences matter, too! For example, an English word in London can have a completely different meaning than the same English word in the U.S. (i.e., boot vs. trunk). Finnish folks don’t say they “love” work because that’s inappropriate in that culture, yet this is a common statement for most of us in the U.S.

Not to mention, when someone says something, if we don’t hear everything or fully understand it, we’ll fill in the blanks with what we know from our own data, which can easily change the meaning of what was said in the first place.

Our brains also use filters and biases to assess information more efficiently. So, people’s brains may be just filtering out parts of what you say because their brains’ internal biases have deemed those things unimportant.

We also use these same biases to alter the meaning of things we hear, and as a result, how you say things is often just as important as what you say — things like volume, tone, and body language matter a great deal to our brains.

It’s like this common scenario: “He said he was having fun, but he didn’t look like he was having fun.” We’re all guilty of picking up external information in addition to what’s actually being said, which causes these differences in interpretation. And it’s a big reason why it might take a while for an intended message to sink in.

Many things go on in our brains that we aren’t aware of, and since our brains are all different, it often prevents us from getting the same message.

Thankfully, once you know the brain works like this, it’s easier to communicate more effectively.

3 Tips to Get Your Message Across

Here are three of our favorite tips for overcoming the brain’s instant processes to communicate better and get our messages heard.

Tip 1: Simplify Your Intended Message

Get really clear on what you’re trying to communicate, and then break it down into its simplest form. Avoid using slang or words that might not be common to your team. The simpler and more straightforward your message, the easier it will be to communicate it.

Tip 2: Call a Friend

If the message you’re trying to express must be understood the first time it’s heard, run it by a friend, trusted colleague, or your personal advisory board first.

Just make sure it’s a safe environment in which you feel comfortable taking risks. Then, get feedback on the message and on your tone, volume, and body language.

Say you’re going to write a message to a European audience and haven’t worked with them in a while, you may want to call a friend who lives there and run your message by them to make sure it will be received correctly.

Then, don’t tell them what you want them to understand. Instead, have them tell you, “this is what I heard,” to make sure you’re communicating your message

correctly. Again, it’s about raising awareness and recognizing our blind spots.

Remember that you don’t have to change everything in your message based on one person’s filter, but it does help create awareness.

Tip 3: Check With Your Audience!

At the end of the day, it’s your audience’s interpretation that matters, so it’s your responsibility to make sure they understand. This requires doing more than asking, “Do you understand?” because someone can understand the words but still process their meanings differently than you intended. Instead, ask questions like:

  • What does this mean to you?

  • Based on this information, what questions do you have for me?

  • How does this information align or deviate from your prior understanding?

Ask these questions in small groups if possible. You can also use a visual tool like green and red paddles or have them make a thumbs up or thumbs down to get a quick assessment of understanding. This allows you to validate their understanding in the moment. We don’t want to assign judgment on how our audience is interpreting things. Instead, we want to give them the tools to understand.

Leaders tend to want to get through their message quickly, so if they see a couple of heads nodding, they call it good. But, the larger the audience, the more likely there are to be people in the crowd who receive an unintended message. And remember, your tone, body language, and facial expressions matter.

Get Your Messages Heard Every Time

Being aware of all the brain’s hidden processes can make it much easier to communicate clearly and effectively. Be sure to keep your message simple, ask for feedback, and check for understanding for the best results.

If you’re struggling with getting your intended message across to your team, you can learn more about effective communication techniques through our coaching programs.


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