Mixed Messages

By: Alan Shaw in Communication, 1 year ago

10975What’s one statement that describes both the best and the worst advice you’ve ever received? You would probably be surprised at how much thought perfect strangers will invest in answering that question. Here are some of the more frequent answers I heard: Calm down. Just walk away. The past is the past. Don’t make waves. It’s time to move on.

Some responses were funny and totally relatable; some seemed to be deeply personal and painful. I’m sure the Senders all had great intentions but the Receivers weren’t always on the same wave length causing more confusion or hostility. We may not even realize some messages can have long-lasting effects.

Mixed messages are common. I try to choose my words very carefully and know that people don’t always understand the context of what I’m saying. Some people are very quick thinkers and speak in short bursts, leaving the rest of us confused and wondering if somehow they failed to include an important word or thought to pull it all together.

So what can we do about it? Here are a couple of ideas and I’d love to hear what’s works for you:

  1. Mentally define how you want someone else to feel.  As message Senders, you have the power to shape your conversations by pre-defining how you want someone else to feel. This becomes even more powerful when you share that definition with someone else.  For example, I told my wife that I always want her to feel loved and respected. If I EVER say anything is not received that way, she is to let me know. That gives me the opportunity to find out why there is a gap in messaging and adapt the narrative to its true meaning. This can work in your profession as well: your boss is going to a meeting and has only a couple minutes to hear your input. You’re focused on making him feel informed and can shape your conversation to hit the most important facts.   If you decide to try this, you must keep the target feeling positive and respectful. It’s too easy to shame others or make them feel inferior. You’re ultimately the loser in that conversation.
  2. Start with an assumption of respect. As message Receivers, we should start with a baseline assumption that the Sender is communicating respect. If we hear a gap, let them know and give them the opportunity to clarify the message. However, using my example above, there have been times I was mad at my wife and communicated in ways that didn’t follow my pre-defined messaging. This “call out” gave me the opportunity to take a step back and address the gap in a way that restored relationship. Of course, it’s not going to be a quick fix in the midst of an argument, but starting with the assumption of respect and then addressing the gaps can help resolve the differences and restore relationship, both personally and professionally.
  3. Speak the same language.  This requires that you have self-awareness to know how you communicate as well as a full understanding that not everyone communicates like you.  Don’t assume you understand how you communicate. You might have some blind spots and need friends to give you candid feedback.  Once you understand yourself, seek to understand others. Ask them direct questions about how they prefer to hear information. Some people need you to be quick and to the point while others may want to invest some time in relationship before getting to the important information.

So what works for you? How would you answer my initial question? Leave a comment below describing both the best and the worst advice you’ve ever received using the same words.

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User Comments

3 Replies

  1. Mary Franz

    Hi Alan. It’s gotta be, “Don’t worry, I’ll take care of it.” As a business owner, checks and balances are in order. Lots of times it all checks out–trust is warranted. When it doesn’t– and goes unchecked– YIKES– makes for a lot of extra work and relationship conversations.

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  2. Lorna McLeod

    One message that strikes me two ways is “Trust me.” I had a manager once who, when he was brand new in the job, said, “Trust me. No one in this organization is going to get fired, edged out or laid off without reason.” Very shortly thereafter two department heads were edged out of their jobs by their positions being downsized so much there was nothing of substance left to do, and two more were summarily fired. Even the long-term HR manager saw no reason for these changes in that all four had been doing an excellent job of managing their departments. It turned out over time that when the words “Trust me” were said, something to the contrary was likely to occur.

    I believe trust is effectively gained and then deserved by consistent behavior and sustained action, not gained because we ‘say’ someone should trust us.

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  3. Edward Hammett

    Thanks Alan! Mixed messages are given in many arenas of life. Sometime intentionally, other times, unintentionally. The consequences can be funny or they can often be very troubling, disconcerting and divisive. Learning to think before we speak or write might be a goal for most these days.

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