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How Clear is Your Message?

Updated on February 27, 2019

What Message do you give? What message do they get?

So many things affect the way your message is received. They include the level of attention gained; the environment; the simplicity of the message; the intention of the communication; and the tone used. It makes sense therefore, to take just a few moments to consider what it is you want the other person to understand.

“The most basic of all human needs is the need to understand and be understood”. Ralph Nichols

Being understood is a fundamental need we all have, and so often we say something, thinking that what we are communicating is common sense, or at least knowing that it makes perfect sense to us. A message, misperceived, can affect relationships at all levels in both our personal and business environments. For example, a parent might think, “This is frustrating! This is the third time I’ve asked him to bring me his homework book and I don’t even know if he has heard me! I wish he would either bring it to me or even just let me know when he will be bringing it to me”. And what the parent actually says is, “Hey, how many times do I have to tell you!” What message do you think the child gets? What is he supposed to answer? And in a business context for example, when a manager starts by saying, “Don’t take this the wrong way”, what message is received? More than likely, “Brace yourself, I’m about to criticize you”.

The enormous amount of information we are bombarded with every day makes communication even more difficult. It is natural for us to filter most of it, take in what suits us, and reject the rest (especially when it’s not very interesting).

The interpretation is further affected by the relationship that exists between the two people and even the tone of voice used. For example, a manager saying, “I noticed that you spent a few hours away from your desk this morning”, in a disapproving tone could be interpreted as an attack, yet if said in a friendly tone could be perceived as a simple enquiry.

“I know you think you understand what you thought I said but I'm not sure you realise that what you heard is not what I meant.” Alan Greenspan

From a Teacher

Here are a few examples of typical (often emotional) messages as described by the renowned counsellor Reinette Du Preez who has done much ground-breaking work with teachers, pupils and parents. (What follows is what the teacher says, and a possible alternative).

  • What’s wrong with you? (When you swing your arms like that, you could hurt someone).
  • You should be ashamed of yourself. (If you want a turn with that book, you need to ask for it, not grab it).
  • Why don’t you listen? How many times do I have to tell you this? (It looks like you’ve forgotten how to do this, let’s practise it now).
  • I don’t know what to do with you. (When you come to our group, you need to have your book with you. Please go and fetch it now).
  • You drive me crazy. (I’ve asked you to please be quiet. I would like you to respect that).
  • You’ll never make it to the second grade. (What are you having trouble with? Are there parts of this lesson you don’t understand?).
  • What I am supposed to do with you? (It seems like you are angry today. Would you like to talk about it?).


Here are a few amusing observations about typical ‘parent-talk’.

Parents teach:

Religion: "You had better pray that will come out of the carpet."

Logic: "Because I said so, that's why."

Irony: "Keep crying and I will give you something to cry about."

Osmosis: “Shut your mouth and eat your supper."

Contortionism: “Will you look at that dirt on the back of your neck!"

Stamina: "You'll sit there until all that spinach is gone."

Hypocrisy: "If I told you once, I've told you a million times. Don't exaggerate!"

Behaviour modification: "Stop acting like your brother!"

Anticipation: "Just wait until we get home."

Receiving: "You are going to get it when you get home!"

What to do about it

It is pretty much the same in adult-to-adult communication. We often use jargon and many verbal irritators that cloud the message and get in the way of effective communication. There is however a lot you can do to improve the chances of your message being perceived in the way it is meant.

  • Speak consciously. Consider your intention as well as the message you would want the other person to receive.
  • Keep it simple and to the point. Use language that everyone can understand.
  • Don’t be sarcastic! Many people are guilty of giving ‘sarcastic praise’. For example, when a sales consultant puts in extra effort and achieves an excellent result, and the manager responds by saying, ”Oh, so you can hit your target if you want to?”
  • Ensure that your emotions are under control. It’s not always practical to wait until you are completely calm before addressing some issues but it is important that you behave calmly when doing so.
  • Speak at a calm and measured pace.
  • Pause for a few seconds to allow significant points to sink in. Ensure you maintain eye-contact whilst doing so.
  • When you have made your point, stop talking.
  • When someone else is speaking, give them your undivided attention and try to understand what they are saying. Listening to understand will create a reciprocal gravitas.
  • When they have finished speaking, don’t rush to answer. Wait a few seconds and consider what they have said before responding.
  • If someone interrupts you, let them. It is pointless trying to talk when someone else is talking and they are certainly not listening at that time. Wait until they are finished before speaking.

Eliminate Unconscious Verbal Irritators

Irritators are unconscious words or phrases that have the potential to irritate others. These words or phrases don’t add anything to the communication and very often create a barrier. Many people use these words or phrases as 'fillers' because they are not comfortable with silence. This often undermines their intended communication. For example, as soon as someone says, “With the greatest respect…” you can be sure that an insult is about to follow.

Be aware of the following and any other unconscious words or phrases when you are communicating. Listen to others, ask for feedback, record yourself, and watch how, by eliminating these words and phrases you can have an immediate positive impact on your communication and interpersonal skills.

  • With respect.
  • Don’t take this the wrong way.
  • I don’t want to be funny, but….
  • Obviously (for example - Obviously you’d agree with me that.. ).
  • At the end of the day (it gets dark?).
  • But... ( as in, “You really approached the project in a positive manner, but…).
  • I understand how you feel.
  • It goes without saying.
  • It’s not rocket science.
  • Let me level with you.
  • To be honest / To be perfectly frank.
  • You know / You know what I mean.
  • But you must understand that…
  • Plus any unnecessary jargon or swearing.


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