One of the most effective tools for successful communication is nearly always off the radar screen. Two words sum it up: anticipate misunderstanding. No matter the business situation, talkers inevitably overestimate their effectiveness. Even when they’re warned of the likelihood of misunderstanding.
Stuart Hall, the cultural theorist, has a delicious way of expressing this: There is no necessary correspondence between encoding and decoding. In other words, just because you composed a message for a specific listener doesn’t mean she’ll understand it.
So if you think your colleagues don't express themselves well, even in very important settings, you may be right. Most of us seriously overestimate our ability to communicate effectively. We’ve known that for years, but now comes a business study demonstrating how great the potential for miscommunication really is.
Boaz Keysar and Anne Henley, psychologists at the University of Chicago, studied 40 pairs of listeners and speakers. In the research the speakers were given ambiguous messages to deliver. Fully aware of the ambiguity at the time they assessed the respondents’ understanding, they still overestimated the recipients’ understanding. The talkers believed that their intended meaning was understood "most of the time." That belief, like a lot of other so called "soft skill" beliefs, doesn’t stand up to the scrutiny of research.
The research showed that nearly half the time those speakers thought they were understood, they were actually wrong. In 46% of the cases there was a breakdown--the listeners didn't get it. What was most surprising was that even though the speakers were warned that the information that they were to communicate was ambiguous, "they still thought they managed to convey their intention with intonation."
Illusion of Control
Keysar and Henley suggested that this overestimation of communication effectiveness is indicative of the "illusion of control." The psychologist Ellen Langer defines it as the tendency for people to overestimate their ability to control events, for instance, to feel that they control outcomes that they demonstrably have no influence over. People show a high illusion of control when they are allowed to become familiar with a task through practice trials—like, for example, throwing dice. Lottery devotees often believe that when they select the numbers, they have a better chance of winning than when the numbers are selected randomly.
Team Canada beat Team USA in the 2002 Olympics, but it was later believed that the win was the result of the luck of a Canadian coin that was secretly placed under the ice before the game to control the outcome. The members of Team Canada were the only people who knew the coin had been placed there. The coin was later put in the Hockey Hall of Fame where there was an opening so people could touch it. People believed they could transfer luck from the coin to themselves by touching it, and thereby change their own luck. Though the coin is not actually lucky or helpful in any way, people believed it was so they thought it could give them better luck. Completely irrational.
Raising your batting average
So how can a person get beyond illusion to check out the effectiveness of his or her communication when the issue is really important? Here's where effective questioning can come to the fore. Notice my adjective, "effective." All too often, checking on the accuracy of message reception or understanding is of little value. Some of the most popular means of checking accuracy are merely clichés. Here’s a list of typical examples, along with an analysis of their real value.
In each instance, a person makes a statement, then “checks” to see whether he’s understood. The tone of the question may be kind, arrogant, demanding, or even thoughtful. Take your pick. Whatever choice you make, the question doesn't anticipate misunderstanding. The analysis of the question is always spot-on.
"Did you hear me?” Absolute waste of time and verbiage. The answer is nearly always yes and means zip.
"Do you understand me?" Nearly absolute waste of time and verbiage. (It's just possible, though rare, that someone might respond in the negative and ask for further clarification.) Still, probably zip.
"What did you hear me say?" Nearly absolute waste of time and verbiage. People can parrot and paraphrase without ever understanding the meaning or implications of a message.
Using the implication question
The most effective means of checking a message is through what's called an "implication question." After a message, you come up with a question like this: "Based on my conversation, what do you see as the next two or three steps?" You're asking a question regarding information you have not given, and asking them to draw some conclusions. Then, by listening closely, you can tell whether or not the message was clear and understood. If so, hurray! If not, you've got to start over.
If you want to check your own understanding, use what I call the "reverse implication question" to validate your understanding. You've thought through what you understood was said, and made some tentative conclusions. So you respond with your own question: "Based on what you've said, here's what I think needs to be done. . . . What do you think?" And let the speaker respond. If he agrees, hurray! If not, the two of you have got to go back to ground zero again.
One thing is not debatable about communication. Overestimating our effectiveness is a regular source of miscommunication. But the implication question is one highly effective remedy.