Communication: Is it About What is Said or What is Heard?

by Allen Shive, a Doxa Counselor

How many people learned to communicate well growing up? Most? A few? Are you a good communicator? You may say, “Of course I am! I am a professional, and I have to communicate to clients, customers, and peers every day.” Or maybe you say, “Of course I communicate well! I work in retail or customer service or healthcare.” Or “I am a mother (or father), and I have to be a good communicator to parent my children.” Whatever your work or home situation is, you interact with others through spoken and written words.

Websters dictionary defines communication as:

  • To convey knowledge of or information about; make known
  • To reveal by clear signs
  • To transmit information, thought, or feeling so that it is satisfactorily received or understood

Communication is often thought of as a person’s ability to use the right words, tone, and sometimes body language to convey an intended message. If the communication is clearly delivered, the person receiving the message will understand it, right? The previously listed definitions seem to agree, stating that communication is to convey, to reveal, to transmit so that the message is correctly understood. Enough said. End of story, right? Well, not so fast.

What if a person uses all the right words, tone, and body language to communicate, and the person receiving the message does not understand or incorrectly interprets the intended message? This seems to happen far too often. One person may be confident they said something perfectly clearly, and the other person misunderstands. This can lead to conflict, hurt feelings, and a decline in the strength of a personal or business relationship.

While there is no one solution to effective communication, there is a simple way to become a better communicator, and it relies on the recipient of the communication. Next time you hear a friend, spouse, colleague, or even a child tell you something that sounds important, repeat their message back to them to make sure you heard what they intended to say. It could sound like this:

“John, what I heard you say is that you think that our team should change the approach we take with our new customers by giving them extra training on our products. Did I get that right?” This gives John the opportunity to either affirm that you heard him correctly or restate his message if you did not understand the way he intended the message.

With a couple, it could sound like this:

“Sweetie, what I think I hear you saying is that you would like me to help more around the house, specifically with putting the dishes in the dishwasher and reading more stories to our children. Did I hear you correctly?” Again, this gives the spouse the opportunity to affirm or restate their message to make sure it is correctly heard.

This may sound too simple. It may even sound strange or forced at first if you have never tried it. Part of the reason this method works is that it is helps the sender and receiver of a communication clarify the intended message. How can the sender of a message really know they were heard correctly if the receiver does not reflect the message back to the sender? How can the receiver of a communication really know that they correctly heard what the sender said if they do not repeat the message back to the sender to make sure? 

I encourage you to try it. Remember, communication is partially about what is said, but it is equally, or possibly even more about what is heard. Now try it with me: “Allen, what I hear you saying is that while it is important to do my best to clearly deliver a message, it is equally important as a receiver of communications to repeat a message to the sender to make sure I heard it correctly?” And I will say, “Yes, you heard me correctly.”

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