What are you saying?

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One of the things we need to be aware of  as leaders is how people hear us  which may not be as we intended to communicate.  There are two things to consider here.

  1. People may hear tone and attitude communicated as well as content
  2. People hear things based on their prior perceptions.

It’s more than content

In terms of content and tone, what this means is that I simply want to convey a specific piece of knowledge or an instruction. Supposing that you are about to touch a hot surface and I call out to you “Stop, that’s hot.”  My sole intention is to give you some information about the hot surface, to warn of danger and to give you a basic instruction asking you to change what you are doing.  

However, you may have heard me communicate other things based partly on how you have heard my tone, other non-verbal signals and factors arising in part two. You may have heard me communicate anger, frustration or fear. You may have felt patronised by what I said (as if you wouldn’t know how to deal with hot surfaces), in other words, I’ve communicated to you that I believe that I know better than you.  At the same time, I’m communicating a sense of responsibility towards you and so you may hear love and concern in my words.

Prior perceptions

If you hear a patronising tone to my warning about the heat danger then that may say something about how you perceive me. Perhaps I come across as having a superior attitude. Alternatively, how I’m heard may tell us more about you and your experiences than anything. Does your indignation at being told what to do tell us something about your own sense of pride and tendency to stubbornness? Or perhaps it tells us that you are used to being looked down on and patronised by others.

So, when I’m trying to communicate, I need to be aware that how I’m perceived may obscure the message.  That perception may well be rooted in reality.  Some of us by nature carry a sense of urgency about us, we also enjoy and thrive when we are changing things.  That’s brilliant. We need disrupters with a sense of urgency to bring about change quickly.  However, if that’s me, then I’m likely to be also seen as impatient and blunt. I may also fail to communicate my concern for people and even though I do care about them, I may give the impression that I’m more focused on the project.

On the other hand, some of us are more methodical and cautious. We prefer to take our time working out the options, listening, weighing up the risks.  We need people like that to ensure there is order and consistency and to stop us rushing ahead with things.  However,  if that’s me, then when I’m saying “wait, be patient, let’s take our time” then I assume people are hearing me say “let’s be careful to ensure we do this well” however, they may be hearing “Stop” and “no.”  They think that I’m putting the block on something. I may be seen as not caring about whether or not we achieve a specific outcome.  And, it’s worth noting that because despite perceptions to the contrary, the first type of person does care about others and love them, they are really worried that if the event doesn’t happen then it will cause them to suffer.

The other factor here is that people do not hear me or form perceptions about me in a vacuum.  I’m being seen as like, or unlike other people. The context is seen through the lens of other situations they have faced.  They may have experienced being pushed into doing things that they did not want to do and that they believe/know put them in danger of harm. They may also have experience of others who frequently use “wait” when they mean “no” because they choose not to be direct but instead use other tactics to block things from happening.

Sometimes the problem is that you are attempting to bring a sense of urgency into a situation where people are used to being comfortable. Sometimes you are attempting constructive feedback when people have been shielded from challenge. Imagine how you will be heard in that context. On the other hand, imagine how you will be heard by those who have suffered serious bullying and abuse whether that was in the home, workplace or sadly even their church.


It’s so important that we consider both what is heard and how it is heard and that we are alert to possible miscommunication and misunderstanding. We can then take time to think about how we can communicate more effectively in that specific context.

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