by Steve Adubato, PhD

I was recently in a local bookstore and came across one of my favorite communication books entitled, “That’s Not What I Meant!”, written by Deborah Tannen. Tannen’s primary expertise as a communication scholar centers around gender communication and the differences between men and women in the way we express ourselves as well as how we listen…or don’t listen.

In her classic book, “That’s Not What I Meant!”, she explores the many reasons why miscommunication and confusion takes place. I like to describe it as message sent not equaling message received, which has been a past theme in this column. As I was thumbing through Tannen’s book, it reminded me of why her work is as relevant today as ever. With advances in technology and the use of so many personal communication devices, there seems to be more miscommunication than ever before.

So what are some of the top reasons why people so often say to each other, “that’s not what I meant”?

--Sender and receiver are just not on the same wavelength. They are in different places emotionally, mentally and viscerally. One person is totally focused on a particular problem or project, while the other person is thinking about what they are going to cook for dinner. Simply put, we live in separate realities (a phrase coined by “Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff” author, the late Richard Carlson) This is another way of saying we all have our own issues, challenges and circumstances that cause us to see the world in a particular way, which is often dramatically different from those around us.

--History. If in the past, the sender and receiver have been in arguments and combative situations where names have been called and charges have been hurled, if one day either party changes his or her tune, and communicates with all the best intentions, there is no guarantee that a positive response will occur. Why? Because that history has created distrust, which in turn causes either or both parties to view any message with suspicion and skepticism no matter how positive the intentions.

--Jargon or shorthand communication. Too often, doctors, lawyers, accountants and professionals in certain fields communicate in a language that is only understood by those in that field. The problem is when these messengers communicate with others outside their field who lack that specific background and training, their message falls on deaf ears. This creates confusion. It builds barriers and ultimately receivers tune out because it is too hard to figure out what the messenger is saying. The great communicators decode their jargon and shorthand communication via universally understood examples, anecdotes and analogies. Those who don’t simply don’t connect.

--One-way communication using the wrong platform. How many times have you sent an e-mail or text message and have the receiver respond in a fashion that makes it clear that the way he or she understood what you were saying was in no way what you intended? Sometimes, we use the wrong communication medium or platform to send a complex message that needs to be nuanced and requires a two-way conversation that allows for questions, paraphrasing and feedback. When this is missing, we rely on the receiver of the message to guess at our message or intent. That is too much to ask in an e-mail or a text. We often say it is faster to communicate in this fashion, but ask yourself how long it takes to unravel the miscommunication caused by the initial message. The key is to invest more time up front in crafting your message and asking what the best way is to send it so it will be received accurately.

Think about these points the next time you are communicating and you want to avoid having to say… “That’s not what I meant!”