Jan 5 2010

What Gets Said vs. What Gets Heard

What Gets Said vs. What Gets Heard

I’ve been on the edge of a few different situations lately at work where what seems like a very clear (even by objective standards) conversation ends up with two very different understandings down the road.  This is the problem I’d characterize as “What gets said isn’t necessarily what gets heard.”  More often than not, this is around delivering bad news, but there are other use cases as well.  Imagine these three fictitious examples:

  • Edward was surprised he got fired, even though his manager said he gave him repeated warnings and performance feedback
  • Jacob thought his assignment was to write a proposal and get it out the door before a deadline, but his manager thought the assignment was to schedule a brainstorming meeting with all internal stakeholders to get everyone on the same page before finalizing the proposal
  • Bella gets an interim promotion – she still needs to prove herself for 90 days in the new job before the promotion is permanent and there is a comp adjustment – then gets upset when the “email to all” mentions that she is “acting”

Why does this happen?  There are probably two main causes, each with a solution or two.  The first is that What Gets Said isn’t 100% crystal clear.  Delivering difficult news is hard and not for the squeamish.  What can be done about it?  The first problem — the crystal clear one — can be fixed by brute force.  If you are giving someone their last warning before firing him, don’t mumble something about “not great performance” and “consequences.”  Look him in the eye and say “If you do not do x, y, and z in the next 30 days, you will be fired.” 

The second cause is that, even if the conversation is objectively clear, the person on the receiving end of the conversation may WANT to hear something else or believes something else, so that’s what “sticks” out of the conversation.  Solving this problem is more challenging.  Approaching it with a lengthy conversation process like the Action Design model or the Difficult Conversations model is one way; but we don’t always have the time to prepare for or engage in that level of conversation, and it’s not always appropriate.  I’d offer two shortcut tips to get around this issue.  First, ask the person to whom you’re speaking to “play back in your own words what you just heard.”  See it she gets it right.  Second, send a very clear follow-up email after the conversation recapping it and asking for email confirmation.

People are only human (for the most part, in my experience), and even when delivering good news or assignments, sometimes things get lost in translation.  But clarity of message, boldness of approach, and forcing playback and confirmation are a few ways to close the gap between What Gets Said and What Gets Heard.