Overcoming Fake Talk

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7 Tips on How to Avoid Being Misinterpreted

A friend of mine is launching a book this fall. Because she writes a weekly blog, she asked her PR Director if he could provide her with any email addresses from the team who might like to receive her weekly article.  A week or so later, the PR Director responded that it was against their company’s policy to provide any email addresses of their bloggers because of privacy concerns.  She was a little puzzled by his response given that she just wanted to make sure that the members of the PR firm were getting her post.

My author friend decided to follow up on the somewhat odd response she had received from the PR Director.  When she contacted him, he was somewhat embarrassed that he had misinterpreted her request.  The PR Director told her John Stokerthat he was in a “blogger” mindset at the time he received her request and that is why he probably assumed she was asking for the email addresses of the PR firm’s bloggers.

This situation is common to all of us.  If we are lacking data about a situation we are in, our brain makes up the difference by filling in the gaps.  Unfortunately, we often assume the worst in such situations. We end up making negative assumptions and interpretations about people or the situation without looking objectively at the available data. Nor do we often assess if we have all of the available data that would support our thinking. It’s difficult to remain objective under such circumstances.   Without all of the data, we may make mistakes in judgment leading to errors in our thinking and actions.

The PR Director was correct when he said that his error was the result of “Blogger” mindset based on his current circumstances.  We all make judgments based on our mindset and frame of reference.  These mindsets are generally based on our past experiences—what we have observed, learned, or been told by others.  Additionally, we are influenced by what circumstances we are currently in.  If we are preoccupied with our thoughts, experiences, and conversations, they can also have an impact on our assumptions, judgments, and actions.   This process of interpretation happens so quickly that we usually don’t take time to stop, think and objectively examine if we have all the necessary data.  Matters become further complicated when people become emotional in these situations.

Here are some suggestions for managing your mindset that will reduce the likelihood of being misinterpreted:

1. Recognize and anticipate individual differences. You cannot assume that your listener is just like you.  Each listener has a different life experience and a vast array of different perceptions.  Because of these different perceptions, they will likely have a different mindset than you.  Expect that they may misinterpret what you say and give you something different than what you expected. You need to anticipate and understand differences.

2. Don’t take others’ misinterpretations personally.  People’s misinterpretations are generally a product of their current mindset.  Recognizing this concept will help you understand that other people will see things differently or may misinterpret what you have said. As an effective communicator, you must manage the conversation to insure that you will not be misinterpreted. Recognize that misunderstanding is the product of their thinking.

3. Check your expectations.  If you are giving directions or making requests, you need to clearly and specifically identify what you would like people to do.  If you don’t know exactly what you want, then what you say may lack sufficient detail and allow people to interpret your message incorrectly. Be as clear as possible.

4.  Ask clarifying questions.  There is nothing wrong with asking someone to repeat back what they think they heard you say.  In fact, this is essential with some interaction styles who think faster than they can speak.  They often think they have said something when they haven’t.  Having them repeat back what they thought you said will help avoid misunderstandings. Ask to clarify.

5.  Write it down.  If what you are asking people to do is fairly complicated, you should clearly document the steps and details and then ask them if you’ve missed anything.  This process forces you to take a close look at your directions and allows them to clarify anything missing or unclear. Make the details obvious.

6. Check for alternatives.  Sometimes when a person says something, we naturally attribute negative meaning to what they’ve said.  If you find yourself making negative judgments or assumptions about the person or their behavior, it helps to ask yourself if there is a positive interpretation to give the same facts. Make sure you are looking at the situation objectively and that you have all the data before making assumptions. Explore your assumptions and recognize when they are incomplete or inaccurate.

7. Pick up the phone.  We spend more time communicating with people via email or text than ever before.  Unfortunately, the tone and intent of these exchanges are often missing.  It is often helpful to call and speak to the person to ask a simple clarifying question or two rather than assuming that we have understood. Call if you are ever in doubt.

We are all prone to making interpretations or assumptions about what others are saying.  Given that our work is increasing in scope and speed is all the more reason for us to stop and examine our thinking for accuracy before we rush to action.  Doing so will insure that we are communicating clearly and accurately so that our actions will deliver the results that we really want.

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5 Tips for Navigating “Whitewater” Conversations

In college I had the opportunity to work as a river guide running the rapids in the Grand Canyon. Later on I discovered that navigating challenging rapids was akin to the terror often experienced in holding challenging conversations. Unfortunately, when it comes to talking about potentially difficult topics, we usually engage in what we call “fake talk” whether intentionally or unintentionally. Fake talk is any conversation where we think we have handled a potentially difficult topic only to find out later, when we didn’t get results, that our conversation was ineffective.

Whether running a serious rapid or holding a difficult conversation, there are five tips that will help anyone to be more successful:

Be prepared. In large rapids it is advisable to stop above the rapid and “scout” the rapid. In difficult conversations, it is important to take some time and think about the current situation. Good conversationalists take time to identify what they want as an outcome for the conversation. They think about the person in the situation, identify the facts of the past, how the person usually responses to feedback, what they are assuming about the person and the situation, and how they might best begin the conversation. Taking a moment to prepare insures that the conversation will go better than thinking that you can just “wing it” and achieve results.

Be aware. An effective river runner learns to “read the river” and use the dynamics of the water to their advantage. Being aware of the dynamics that are present in any conversation is the key to managing those dynamics. Often people are not aware of what is happening in a conversation until it is too late. This is especially true when it comes to dealing with negative emotional reaction. Recognizing when tempers start to flare is important in defusing emerging emotion and keeping the conversation on a rational track. You must notice the conversation’s dynamics and manage them.

Be deliberate. When running a rapid, you should decide beforehand the path to take and then you execute a maneuver along that path. Good communicators have a clear process for holding the conversation that ends in creating accountability or a change in behavior. That is the reason you hold the difficult conversations in the first place—you want something to change. You have to be deliberate about the course you will take and where you desire to end up if you ever hope to get where you want to go.

Be curious. Working in the bottom of the Grand Canyon for 13 years, I learned many things about the natural world that were totally outside the perception of my normal everyday life. I found it helpful to notice what I didn’t know and to pose questions in an attempt to increase my understanding of this new world. In conversation, we often make assumptions about people and situations which are incomplete or inaccurate. In conversation you need to understand what you know and what you don’t know. This requires that you ask questions either to confirm what you know or to learn what you don’t know. Either way, asking questions helps to increase your understanding and to assess the accuracy of your thinking.

Be attentive. In the middle of any rapid things can change instantaneously and dramatically. Being in the middle of a dynamic moment requires that you pay attention to what is happening, so that when the dynamics change you can adapt to those changing dynamics immediately. In conversation we often listen with our ears, but we don’t attend to the messages that are being sent beyond the words that are spoken. Being attentive allows us to capture all the messages that are being sent and respond to them by asking questions to understand what is being communicated. Often the unspoken messages are more important than what is actually said. People may say “yes” with their words when the nonverbal message screams “NO!” You have to notice these messages if you are going to understand how they may impact your results.

These simple five tips will help you to navigate the perils that difficult conversations often present. If you can take a moment to prepare, be aware of what is happening in the moment, be deliberate in what you want to create as an outcome, be curious about what others are thinking, and be attentive to the messages that are offered, you are sure to improve your results. You can navigate the “whitewater” of difficult conversations rather than running the risk of engaging in fake talk that leads to navigating that “rapid” again.

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7 Ways to Improve Your Capacity for Compassion

I attended a leadership conference a few weeks ago at which I had been asked to speak.  In one of the sessions, I was surprised when a senior executive stood before a group of newly promoted leaders and said, “I want to remind you of the importance of really loving the people who work for you!”  I have long believed that leaders who truly care for their people become the leaders who are able to help others to create extraordinary results.  I just had never heard anyone express this sentiment so directly or openly.

Caring for others really does have an impact on how we treat and speak with others. I have often been asked after spending a number of days teaching a variety of conversation skills, “Is there any way I could assimilate all you have been teaching us about communicating more quickly?”  The answer to this question is both “yes” and “no.”


The “Yes” Answer  

In thinking about the answer to this question, I am reminded of a story I heard years ago. It seems that a certain community was being ravaged by diphtheria.  A young father heard that his neighbors and their three children had been stricken.  Because no one seemed to want to help for fear of being infected, he took it upon himself to help this family.

When he visited the family’s home, he found one of the children had died and the two others were in utter agony from the disease. Because the parents of the child were also stricken, he immediately prepared the toddler’s body for burial, cleaned the rest of the house, prepared a meal, and saw to the remaining children’s needs. The next day when he returned to the home, he found another child had died in the night. He then turned his attention to the remaining child who was suffering.  With no thought for himself, he took the child in his arms and walked the floor with her trying to provide some degree of comfort until she was overcome by the disease and died.  He continued to assist this grief-stricken family by preparing the children’s bodies for burial.  He ended up making funeral arrangements and speaking at the graveside services. 

This man over time became a great leader in his community in part because of the compassion he had for others. How could such an individual who possessed the character trait of compassion and kindness not radiate and speak to others in such a way that would leave no doubt that he cared for each of them?  One way to become a better communicator is to develop compassion for others.

The “No” Answer

How do you learn or teach others compassion?  In some measure, the care and concern we have for others is an outward expression of how we feel about ourselves.  For example, if you are angry or distrusting of others, your outward treatment of them is a reflection of how you see the world and those in it. Our compassion and kindness toward others is grounded in our awareness of our own humanity and the depth of our experience.  It is difficult to have compassion for those that are hungry until you have been hungry.  As we come to respect ourselves, our respect for others will increase.  Likewise, the opposite is true.  As we get outside ourselves and understand the plight of another, we may begin to understand ourselves more deeply.

Here are some suggestions for expanding your capacity for compassion:

Set Your Judgment Aside

We are too quick to make negative assessments of others who don’t quite meet our expectations.  Be aware enough to recognize your thinking and set any negative conclusions aside.  Being willing to challenge your thinking may lead you to discover that your first impressions were incomplete or inaccurate.

Explore Their Perspective

Everyone’s behavior is grounded in some degree of rationality, even if their reasoning is only evident to them.  Taking the time to ask questions and understand their perspective will help you understand the mindset that drives their behavior.

Demonstrate Appreciation

Look for opportunities (or create an opportunity) to assist, support, or contribute to the success or wellbeing of another.  Not only will you feel more positive, but such actions are contagious and are likely to be replicated by others.

Forgive Others

There is nothing worse than holding on to negative thoughts and feelings about others.  Doing so is not only unhealthy physically and mentally, but to some degree you will hinder yourself from achieving what is important to you.  Let your negative feelings and judgments go and look for ways to increase respect, strengthen relationships, and improve results.

Speak Kind Words

Not only will a kind word lift a person in the moment, but those kind words may positively impact that person for the rest of their life.  Kindness begets kindness.  If you are kind to others, they will in turn be kind to you and to those around them, causing a wonderful ripple effect.

Hold Others Accountable

Being compassionate does not mean that you avoid holding difficult and necessary conversations.  On the contrary, holding these types of conversations says that you care enough about the person to talk about what matters most.  This will be appreciated as you demonstrate your own integrity and commitment to compassion by treating people with dignity and respect.

This topic is an opportunity for some personal reflection and soul searching which is not always easy.  But, if you really want to improve the quality of your conversations and relationships, there is much to be said in support of improving yourself and your view of humanity.

What do you do to cultivate compassion in yourself and others? How has this impacted you? Your relationships with others?  We’d love to hear from you in the comments below.

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