What did I say?

A common strategy for working thru interpersonal communication issues is ‘restating’. “What I heard you just say is…” The idea is to clarify assumptions and, over time, improve mutual understanding. Now, what if you were to apply restating to your own communications?

A teacher acquaintance related the following experience. “I gave instructions for a group task and told students to begin. I was surprised to see a couple groups doing something other than what I instructed. My immediate reaction was that I should scold them and get them back on task. Instead, I approached them calmly and inquired what it was they were doing. I was very surprised to hear them repeat word- for-word the instructions I had just given; as it turns out that is exactly what they were doing!

“Again, my natural teacher impulse was to scold them for not knowing better; after all, other groups had figured out my intent despite my actual words. Instead, I got the attention of the class, acknowledged the work they were currently doing, and then restated the task; this time making sure I conveyed my intent more accurately.” 

In this scenario the teacher adopted a strategy of responding vs. reaction. The typical reaction would be to scold, assuming the discrepant task to be an indication of poor discipline, disrespect or inattention. It took a bit longer to consider that something else might be going on, but the gentle inquiry lead to a response that allowed instruction to continue with a sense of harmony.

Certainly in your own life you have had the experience of a surprising response to a communication with a child, spouse or co-worker. Before assigning blame on them for poor listening, disrespect or simply mis-understanding, play back in your own head what you just said. That is, if you can remember it.

If you cannot, ask. You will not always get a word-for-word playback, but the summary may provide vital clues about how well you communicate what you think you are communicating.

Even when your words are chosen well, the message can be distorted by non-verbal cues. Remember, it is often not what you say but how you say it.

Perhaps more important, though, is your desire to communicate harmoniously. People who jump to negative conclusions about others often have a similarly negative view of themselves. A helpful strategy for reversing negativity is to consider a positive alternative. It need not be specific; my teacher acquaintance was surprised to hear himself quoted, but was relieved at the positive explanation for the students’ behavior.

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