Originally published in the Boulder Daily Camera and the Longmont Daily Times-Call.

I know you believe you understand what you think you heard me say, but I’m not sure that you realize that what you heard is not what I meant.

This statement is more true today than ever.

While most people understand that effective communication is essential to personal and business success, not much attention is given to the fact that often we literally don’t understand each other.

This notion was clearly illustrated at a recent gathering of business people talking about what issues are important to the business community. “We need more recognition of culture”, one person said. Another added that he felt that the “culture” of the community right now is one that isn’t very open to business. I felt that he had missed the point of the original speaker and noted that “culture” is clearly defined in our community plan for economic development – that arts and culture are very important parts of the business community. The first speaker corrected both of us by noting that he meant that respect for different cultures is needed. Turns out we were all talking about something different.

How, then, are we to engage in effective communication? How do we know that our messaging is being interpreted the way that we intended? The first thing is to be aware that not everyone means the same thing, even when using the same words. We choose words based on our experience, our educational level, where we live, who our audiences are and many other factors. But how often do we ask, “What do you mean?”

As one who is never afraid to ask questions, I became intrigued by our exchange. I asked questions to learn where the speakers were coming from. It was in this manner that I realized that three people were talking about one word in three different ways.

Why are so many people afraid to ask questions? It is the very best way to learn. But many people decline to ask questions, particularly in public. Most are worried that they may seem uniformed. They believe their questions may make others think less of them. Some worry that they will say the wrong thing and alienate people. All of these are legitimate fears, but what happens if you don’t ask questions and you misunderstand? Then all of the above fears may manifest in reality.

Much of communication is impacted by how others react. More and more I receive queries from people who have been in business for some time, but are now afraid to speak about virtually anything. The potential blowback that may be experienced, from any number of groups or individuals, causes fear. Thus, effective communication is negatively impacted.

Effective communication is a two-way activity. When there is fear of communication everyone loses. When people are communicating, but are talking past each other, everyone loses. Don’t be afraid to ask questions to clarify either your own communication, or others.

Another way to ensure that your communication efforts are hitting the mark is to ask others what they think. I often ask others about what they think about what I’ve said – did I make sense? Did I understand what others were saying? Did I miss something? In this manner, I’m able to understand what is effective and what is not.

Effective communication requires thought. It should be intentional and clear. When your communication isn’t effective it’s time to consider that others may believe they understand what they think they heard you say, but they may not realize that what they heard is not what you meant!

Stacy Cornay is the owner of Communication Concepts Public Relations & Advertising. 
She may be reached at 303-651-6612; scornay@comm-concepts.com; www.comm-concepts.com; Facebook.com/Communication Concepts; Twitter @CommConceptsPR; or Linked In.

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