Do You Say What You Mean?

The big problem with verbal communication is that we don’t do it very well at all. In other words, often we don’t say what we mean which leaves the listener to interpret what we meant from what they heard. So we’ve all had to become good interpreters. It’s all the more puzzling because in English we have over 171,000 words to choose from. Most English speakers use barely over 10% of these words in their everyday vocabulary.

Isn’t it just a case of choosing the right words and arranging them in order? Well yes it should be, but actually no – it’s a bit more complicated than that.

We have a tendency to use colloquial language. This complements our need to fit in to the circle in which we work or socialise. So we throw in slang, swearing, a few likes and y’knows, plenty of “ums” and so on. When we communicate vocally our brain instructs us to convey messages and emotions in (almost) real time. To do that we need to convert emotion into words and then order those words. Since its done at breakneck speed most of us have a hit and miss success rate. Why? In our haste we often get ahead of ourselves by blurting forth before thinking about what we are going to say, why we are saying it and how we’re going to phrase it – and what the impact is going to be.

This can result in

Choosing the wrong words
Being long winded
A stop-start method of delivery
A lack of logic
Misunderstanding and disagreements

The message that comes across is therefore not exactly what we intended.

We’ve all heard people arguing vehemently when in fact they both agree on just about everything! Perhaps they were arguing about who said it first or who is right.

Without consciously doing so, listeners are judging us by the way we speak and how we put our message across. So there is more at stake than just the message itself – our speech impacts the long term impression we make and the prospect of being believed in future. So our vocal delivery actually impacts our reputation.

If we say something we did not intend to say, perhaps in the heat of the moment, we can attempt to retract the statement or apologise. But it can not be fully erased since what’s already been said is said and is perceived to be the true emotion being expressed.

Remember that the person you’re speaking to has different thoughts to you. When you start speaking to someone you are actually diverting their thoughts from what they had been thinking. So you need to “lead in” or create context when you speak so that you’re “reading from the same page”.

Our objective should be to get a message across by communicating clearly and concisely. It follows that taking a moment to first think about what you’re going to say will help you attain your communication objective. Since we think a lot faster than we speak that’s not too difficult to do. A two second pause before you speak gives you ample time to order your thoughts.

Here are some handy tips to ensure that you can be understood easily:

  1. Speak clearly. This is achieved by ensuring that you’re loud enough, you avoid speaking too fast, pause between sentences and pronounce your words clearly.
  2. Be specific. Communicate a message fully by including all the important bits and creating context. For instance instead of “I sent it to you yesterday” you could be a little more specific by saying “I emailed it to you at 11h40 yesterday”. Those few extra words will date and time-stamp the sentence and add the method of transmission. Now the recipient of your message knows where to look and when. When we communicate carelessly without the necessary information we open ourselves up to an unnecessary protracted dialogue. Your aim is for clear understanding. Whether they agree with you or not is a different issue completely.
  3. Finish verbalising a thought before moving on to the next thought. By taking a few seconds to order your thoughts you can create a logical argument rather than a flood of illogical emotion.
  4. Pause between sentences. This allows listeners to absorb your previous sentence, and it gives you time to order your thoughts for the next one. It might also allow the listener to butt in with their thoughts or questions. That’s not a bad thing since you then find out what they are thinking.
  5. Avoid being long winded. A shorter sentence with the same message is more effective than one filled with unnecessary words. Just ensure that all the important bits are included.

When the discussion becomes emotional the risk of unpleasantness or hurtful communication increases. It’s usually better to remain calm when communicating. This way disagreements can be resolved in an equitable manner without one party bullying the other into submission. However there is no reason to bottle up your energy or enthusiasm.

We should always remember that other people have their own opinions, logic and reasons for disagreeing with you. You are more likely to get a lasting resolution to a problem if the issues at hand are discussed calmly using a logical progression of thought.

By converting these tips into habits you will enjoy better communication with others. The inevitable result is less conflict and misunderstanding, and better results. You are also treated with more respect and your opinion is taken more seriously by others.

Paul du Toit, CSP is the author of “You Can Present With Confidence”

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