Reality Check: What we say; What they hear

Have you ever walked away from a conversation shaking your head and wondering, “What was that all about?” Do you ever perceive that people you talk to are overly sensitive, resentful, or easily offended?
Having a conversation that’s a true exchange of information can be more complicated than we think.
Ashley has recently been promoted and she’s feeling the pressure (mostly self-inflicted) of her new responsibilities. She wants to make a good impression on her team. She’d like them to know that although she is no-nonsense, she is supportive and wants to help them make their jobs better.
So Ashley has decided that each morning she’ll have a brief conversation with every team member. That way, she’ll be able to track progress and find out what she needs to do so everything will run smoothly.
Monday morning, Ashley quickly greets Michael and asks, “Have you checked your supplies?” Michael, who has already fielded three customer complaint calls and is trying to follow up on those, replies sarcastically, “No, I’ve just been sitting around.”
Ashley is taken aback. She was only trying to make sure the supplies are in. Why would Michael respond like that?
Let’s consider what was said—and what was heard.
One way of looking at conversation is to break it into three components: There’s the person sending the message (Ashley), the person receiving the message (Michael), and then there’s the message itself.
In this case, the message is neutral. It’s a simple question; a request for information that can be answered with a straightforward “Yes” or “No.”
The message that Ashley was trying to convey is essentially, “I want to keep on top of my responsibilities so your job will run smoothly.”
What does Michael hear? “She thinks I’m not doing my job. She is telling me that I can’t be trusted to handle these details myself. And, she doesn’t respect that I have other, more important things to handle at the same time.”
So when Michael responded, he’s not responding to the simple inquiry about supplies. He’s responding to what he perceived to be an underlying accusation. Rather than clarify, he chose to respond defensively, with sarcasm.
What Ashley learned through Michael’s response is that her question was not heard in the spirit intended. If she wants to build a good working relationship with Michael, then here are a few things for her to consider.
How did she approach Michael? Did she start with, “Hello Michael. How are things going so far today?” If she had, she might have learned that this Monday morning was already hectic, and the supply list was not Michael’s top priority at the moment.
How about her tone of voice? Was it friendly? Or demanding?
What was her body language? Did she approach briskly and authoritatively, with high heels clicking across the floor and a clipboard in hand? There are appropriate times and place to display your authority. However, given what Ashley wants to achieve, she may see that her morning rounds are not that time—if she wants to build a relationship of trust and cooperation.
While Ashley might be tempted to respond to Michael’s sarcastic response in kind, this is really an opportunity to practice her communication skills. How?
For example, “I noticed that you seem to be stressed, and I’m wondering if I can help.” Or, “Help me understand how I can make this morning check-in work better for both of us.”
Good will on the part of both people makes any conversation work better. Recognizing the possibility that what the other person heard may not be what we intended to convey can help us maintain our good will and work through a misunderstanding.
How would you respond to Michael?

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