Are You Receiving Me?

Are You Receiving Me?

“The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.”

George Bernard Shaw


I was reminded of some wonderful communication malfunctions when working with a delightful German client recently. As usual his English was impeccable and we’re both experienced enough to understand the pitfalls when the certainties of the German language clash with the subtleties of the English. Nevertheless….

We’d exhaustively rehearsed a presentation based on me asking questions and him answering.  The first questions and answer went well, then I asked the second question and in front of a packed audience he replied “I don’t understand the question!”

I’m still not sure what exactly happened (we did get back on track) but I assume I asked the question in a slightly different way and the literal translation to my German co-presenter left him stumped and wondering why I’d decided to change the presentation on the fly. He later saved the day by asking the room “Have I answered all your questions and explained myself clearly?” he was met with the usual English reserve to which he then announced “It’s OK, you can tell me the truth, I’m German!” which brought the house down.

Language and culture create obvious challenges.  The English language can be anything other than ‘plain English’.  Our nuances and our love for turns of phrase can create untold problems for the non-English.

I love the table below, even thought it’s 7-8 years old, and share it with any non-English speakers I do business with, it may even help you on holiday. It illustrates beautifully how common phrases we use leave a very different impression to what’s intended:

(Taken from the Independent: https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/chart-shows-what-british-people-say-what-they-really-mean-and-what-others-understand-a6730046.html )

Great things can happen when the capabilities of different teams and individuals are combined.   But every now and then something happens that reminds you why there’s no guarantee and that creating partnerships, teams and working relationships is a challenge that requires careful management. So often the biggest barrier is communication.

Even between native English speakers it can often go awry.  We overwhelmingly deduce our feelings, attitudes, and beliefs about what someone says not by the actual words spoken, but by the speaker’s body language and tone of voice.  Studies have quantified this tendency; words, tone of voice, and body language respectively account for 7%, 38%, and 55% of personal communication.   Which can make electronic communication extremely troublesome.

E-mail, of course, has a multitude of virtues: it’s quick and convenient and it enables us to accomplish huge amounts of work together.

The problem with email is that what we hear in our head as we type is not necessarily what the recipient hears in theirs when they read and receive it.

What felt like a simple message requesting clarification as it was created can sound terse or confrontational on receipt.  The fact that the message remains as a permanent record can make this even worse.  The re-reading, second-guessing of the sender’s tone and potential misunderstanding can create frustration and even anger.

Sometimes the telephone is no better.  Anybody who has been on a conference call where different groups gather around speaker phones in several locations will likely have experienced the horror of saying something only to be met with moments of complete silence – did they hear me?  Did they understand?  Did I say the wrong thing?

The biggest communication problem in reality is forgetting that it can be a problem and failing to take steps to manage it. The second biggest is not making the effort to meet face-to-face.

In situations where creating alignment, common understanding and agreement there are many risks.  Considering the communication risks and taking steps to mitigate them are vital.   The right method, right place, right time takes planning and coordination.

“A single moment of misunderstanding is so poisonous, that it can make us forget the hundred lovable moments spent together.”

Unknown source