Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 2, Issue 49;   December 4, 2002: Message Mismatches

Message Mismatches


Sometimes we misinterpret the messages we receive — what we see or hear. It's frustrating, and tempers can flare on both sides. But if we keep in mind two ideas, we can reduce the effects of message mismatches.

Overcoming an urge to slap his own forehead, Jesse realized that they'd wasted the past six weeks. Just to be sure, he asked, "Courtney, are you saying, for example, that the Tier 2 languages aren't needed until Q3 next year?"

A mismatch"Yes. I don't know how to be clearer. No Tier 2 languages till Q3 next year." Courtney was cool on the outside, but really steamed inside. She looked across the table at Miguel, and nodding slightly, replayed in her mind what he'd said on the way over: "These guys are genetically incapable of delivering anything within a decade of the plan date."

"I see," Jesse continued. "When you said 'full compliance with the spec Rev 2.07,' we thought you meant 'full compliance with the entire spec Rev 2.07,' which included languages. Now I understand that you meant only 'full compliance with the networking spec Rev 2.07."

We can't control
what others do
with what we say
Mix-ups like this cost real money. One small word — 'entire' vs. 'networking' — made all the difference. Here are some reasons why the receiver might not receive the message the sender sends:

Wandering attention
We get distracted, and don't listen carefully. Or sometimes, we don't feel the need to listen.
We assume that our first interpretation is correct
This can happen because we anticipate or have pre-set expectations. Sometimes receivers even "repair" the message they receive, because it makes no sense as received.
Differences in usage
Sender and receiver might use the language differently. Perhaps they're a different sex, or in a different profession, as Jesse and Courtney are, or have different native languages.
Past associations
Our personal history with concepts, people, procedures, or technologies can be misleading.
Anticipated discounting or padding
Receivers might discount estimates or promises, because of past experience with the sender or with others. Or senders, anticipating a discount, might inflate estimates or promises differently from the receiver's discount.

And sometimes we just make mistakes. It's all very frustrating, and tempers can flare.

Language is ambiguous. When we're stressed or hurrying to save time, we don't check carefully enough for unrecognized ambiguity. But we can reduce the effects of message mismatches if we keep two ideas in mind.

We can't control what others do with what we say
Once the words are out, it's up to the hearer (or reader) to interpret them. We'll feel better about unexpected interpretations if we give up the idea that we control how people interpret our words.
Let others check it out
When we hear, "Let me see if I've got this right," we sometimes feel as if our competence or integrity is in doubt. But if we can learn to interpret this as a simple verification of understanding, we gain a valuable tool for preventing misunderstanding.

And you can check it out, too. Whether you're receiving or sending, you can uncover message mismatches with examples, what-ifs, restatements, and even humor. Whenever you try, you'll almost surely uncover at least some tiny differences. The time to worry is when you don't. Go to top Top  Next issue: What Haven't I Told You?  Next Issue

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