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Do you understand what I mean?

Have you ever said something to somebody and found that they understood the exact opposite of what you meant?

I was on the receiving end of this in a recent workshop that I attended.

In this post I look at why this happens. In the second part I will offer some simple ideas on how to ensure that the message received is the same as that which we intended.

Don’t assume that I know what your intention is.

It was a free workshop with the trainer offering information about their subject in the hope that people would pay for further training. I like this business model.

The theme was something that really interested me, and as a bit of an information and course junkie, I was the perfect subject.

All was going well until about 5 minutes in. The trainer asked a question and was clearly expecting a response. None came. He then used what seems to me to be a very clichéd response by nodding his head vigorously and saying “this is yes!” He then shook his head from side to side and said “this is no! If you remember these 2 simple instructions we will all get along just fine.”

That’s the point he lost me. I don’t remember exactly, but I’m sure that I learned to shake and nod my head at a very young age and I haven’t forgotten how to do it since. I found it incredibly patronising, even though I’m sure it wasn’t intended in that way.

That’s the point though, in communication it’s not what is intended that is important but what is understood.

Why miscommunication happens.

One of the core principles of NLP states that: “the meaning of communication is in the response that we receive.” To me that’s quite a cryptic way of saying that when wish to communicate something, it is not the responsibility of the recipient to understand it. It’s our responsibility to make sure that we are understood.

Using an analogy, if we were to throw a ball at a target, it is not the responsibility of the ball to hit the correct spot. Neither is it the responsibility of the target to intercept the ball. It is down to us to aim correctly, and if we miss, to do something different until we hit the correct spot.

Going back to the other evening. I believe it is the responsibility of the person leading the workshop to create the necessary rapport. If they can do that and make the material interesting people will respond. Maybe I’m being obtuse but I simply refuse to sit and nod my head like a trained monkey just because somebody standing at the front has asked me to. If however, the necessary rapport has been created, and I am interested in the subject matter, I do join in, and I find myself nodding and shaking my head, even responding verbally, almost without realising.

It was a real shame and I believe that we both lost out. Once that connection had gone, it didn’t come back. The trainer lost a potential customer very early on; and I didn’t really learn anything about the subject.

There is always something to learn however. I learned a little more about how a few innocent words, even when said with good intention, can cause unwanted reaction in others. I learned a little more about leading workshops too. A very useful hour indeed.


In part 2, I will discuss some simple ideas of how we can make our communication clearer and more consistent.


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