But that’s not what I meant!!

Who cares! Quite frankly it doesn't matter what you meant, it only matters what the other person heard. The quicker we come to grips with this the happier we will all be. I know this can be tough. I recently wrote a white paper and sent it around to my trusted colleagues for feedback. I got some very clear feedback around a set of questions I had included. With each response I wanted to say, “No, no that’s not what I meant. You’ve misunderstood the message,” and “No, that's not what I meant. Could you try reading it again and maybe it will be clearer on the second read through?” But I didn’t. I held my tongue and swallowed my pride because ultimately it didn't matter what I meant. I can’t realistically sit next to all the people who might read the article in case they misinterpret my message. I’m the one who wants to be understood, so it’s my responsibility to understand how others may hear my message and adapt it accordingly until it is.

I haven’t always done this mind you. It has taken many years and many frustrating conversations for me to get this principle. So let me save you the time. If you want to improve your communication then start from the premise that it doesn’t matter what you mean, it only matters what is heard. You will have a much better chance of getting your message across. Not every time, but certainly more of the time. And that's got to be better than nothing!

Tips for clarifying your meaning:

  • Hmm. I’m not sure I was being very clear just then. I apologise, let me try again, …
  • Oh ok. So what you heard was….? Ahh yes I can see how you would have heard that. What I was trying to say was…. (and then say it in another way, don't just repeat your original message!)
  • I think there’s been a miscommunication on my part. What I wanted to share was…

PS Not all of these may work as this is a particularly tricky area to respond to delicately and each case is different. To be effective the questions must come from genuine curiosity and a respectful tone and be something similar to how you would normally communicate.