“No one means all he says, and yet very few say all they mean.”
This sounds like a recipe for misunderstandings! And it comes from a man who is best remembered today for his wry—but accurate—social and historical commentary. His most recognized work is the autobiographical, The Education of Henry Adams. But in the spirit of misunderstanding, it might better be called semi-autobiographical. Adams wrote the work in the third person which not only made for a livelier narrative but for easier deviations from fact as well. Disdainful of his Harvard education, he criticized the college for not teaching him Marx in 1858 while overlooking that Das Kapital wasn’t published until 1867. More obviously, he completely omitted the years 1872-1891 and any reference to his marriage! Make no mistake—The Education of Henry Adams is a superb work of non-fiction, but it’s not a straightforward accounting of his life. In order to fully appreciate the book, a modern reader will have to spend some time trying to understand the man and his times.
Nowadays we put a premium on understanding. Each of us is challenged to plumb our interpersonal relationships for true meaning. And we have a warehouse full of tools to help us do just that. We’re schooled in active listening, empathic listening, cultural awareness, multi-generational awareness, body language and a host of other skills so that we can really understand what the other fellow means. But wouldn’t it be great if the other fellow just made his point clear? Wouldn’t it be great if we made ourselves understood?
The problem with always emphasizing understanding is that it keeps us in a reactive mode. It focuses our energy on data-gathering so that we can formulate an accurate response. But leaders have to get out in front of issues. Leadership isn’t just about responding—it’s about acting. It’s about creating a common vision and leveraging the strengths of others to achieve it. To do that, you have to be understood. And the faster you get your point across the more successful you’ll be. The first step is to figure out what it is you’re after. Too many leaders operate with only a vague idea of where they’re headed. They have trouble articulating a precise goal and are even less certain how they’ll know when they’ve achieved it. Once you know your objective, it’s also helpful to know why you’re doing it. A big part of motivation (for yourself and others) is a clear understanding of why something is important. This insight alone fosters a sense of urgency and a strong sense of commitment. Next, you need to remember to stay on message by aligning what you say with how you say it. Research tells us that words communicate only about 7% of our message. Thirty-eight percent is communicated by tone of voice, volume, and inflection. That leaves 55% of your message being communicated by nonverbals. These include facial expressions, eye contact, and body language. Taken together, how you say something has vastly more impact than the words themselves. (Take this as a warning if you’re email dependent!) So if you want to be understood, you must be clear about what you want to say, why you want to say it and then express yourself in a manner that matches your affect with the outcome you desire.
Of course, we all know there’s a symbiotic relationship between understanding and being understood. Both are essential for effective communication. But if you make an effort to communicate to be understood, folks will have to spend a lot less time trying sort out what you really intend. That means better results in less time. It also means a lot fewer misunderstandings. And that will add hours to your day! —Ebert