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Why Don't You Understand What I Mean?

By Ken and Lee Estridge

One of the reasons people have a hard time communicating is that they don't have a model for articulating clear communication, and they don't feel safe providing feedback. Often individuals wind up saying nothing in order to avoid conflict or they state their "case" in such a way that the person hearing the feedback becomes defensive and angry. Either way, nothing gets resolved and in many cases there's not much insight about how or why a particular communication went askew.

Simple Exchange?

At some point you've probably experienced or at least heard something like:

Boss: "When you get a chance, could you create a summary report?"
Employee: "Sure, no problem."

Simple = Complex?

Adding more detail to the "Simple Exchange" example illuminates how simple can really mean complex:

Beth (employee) works for Brian (boss), and when Brian says to Beth, "When you get a chance, could you create a summary report?" Beth hears, "Drop everything you're doing and do the summary report now!" Beth is very efficient and prides herself on getting things done, and she focuses on one thing at a time until it's completed. Brian is a multi-tasker who likes to think out loud and will often give Beth multiple things to do at the same time. He rarely checks in with her about what she's working on and often isn't clear about how to best prioritize assignments. Beth resents that Brian isn't sensitive to what she's currently doing and that he constantly interrupts her with new things to do.

From Beth's perspective, Brian's approach gets in the way of her completing her existing tasks and she doesn't feel comfortable saying something like, "Brian, I'm too busy to do the summary report right now, can I work on it later?" Predictably, she often goes home with a sense of incompletion and complains to her friends about how difficult it is to work for Brian. From Brian's perspective, he's often puzzled by Beth's behavior. He likes Beth and wants her to be happy working for him. He doesn't understand why she often seems irritated and frustrated.

Back Story Redux

Brian and Beth have two different ways of communicating and of approaching their tasks, and what's missing between them is an understanding and appreciation of their different approaches. They could be a great team if they really understood each other and knew how to communicate more effectively with each another. Brian is spontaneous and lives in a world of ideas, and he gets energized by his idea of the moment and wants to share it. He thinks quickly about multiple things and as soon as he thinks of something that needs to be done, he wants to communicate it so it gets on Beth's to do list before he moves on to think about something else. In contrast, Beth is very goal focused and organized, and she likes to have a clear and realistic to do list so that she can complete everything she sets out to do each day. It's tough for Beth to be interrupted by Brian all the time, but he's the boss and she doesn't think she can change his style of communication, so she just does the best she can and often feels frustrated and angry.


The good news is that with the help of an impartial coach, Beth and Brian could quickly cut through the back story and begin to communicate clearly and deliberately while supporting each other's work styles.

Is Coaching Right for You?

While a coach can facilitate difficult conversations among team members and teach people how to provide effective feedback, the individuals involved need to be open to examining their communication and work styles. We would like to offer seven basic questions that could serve as a starting point for you to think about your own communication style.

  1. Do you understand the different work and communication styles of the people you interact with daily?
  2. Do you make someone's interpretation of what you said "wrong" because it's different from what you think you said?
  3. Do you check in to see whether or not someone received your message as you intended it?
  4. Are you a good listener?
  5. Do you ask for clarification to be sure you understand what was stated or requested?
  6. Is it permissible within your organization for people to communicate openly and provide feedback to each other?
  7. Do you and the people you work with have the skills and tools to provide effective feedback?

Is It Worth It?

It's not easy to ask yourself those seven questions, but if you answer them honestly, you'll find that you're on your way to cultivating a deeper understanding of your own communication style, and you'll begin the process of uncovering how it impacts the people in your life.

Warm regards from two very different people who are continually working on communicating more effectively!

Ken and Lee