by Steve Adubato, PhD
The next book I write is going to be called “That’s Not What I Meant.” I’m not joking. I’ve lost count of the times that I’ve said to my wife, my kids, or the people I work with, “That’s not what I meant. What I meant was…”, after saying one thing and having it interpreted differently. We get misinterpreted all the time.
Consider the case of Yankees co-chairman Hank Steinbrenner, who recently made a comment in the media about Yankee superstars not performing at their best. Said Steinbrenner; “I think, maybe, they celebrated too much last year…Some of the players, too busy building mansions and doing other things and not concentrating on winning.”
As soon as Steinbrenner said it, many in the media legitimately interpreted his comments as a direct hit on Yankees captain and icon Derek Jeter. For the last several years, Jeter has been building a mega mansion in Tampa, Florida on Davis Islands. Of course, Jeter was peppered with questions about Steinbrenner’s comments and, as usual, communicated like a pro by deflecting the controversy and saying Steinbrenner never mentioned him by name, and he had no reason to think he was talking about him.
Steinbrenner, who will never be confused with Joe Torre when it comes to his public communication skills, said this week; “He [Jeter] knows I wasn't referring to him…It’s not what I meant. That was never my intention.”
Part of the reason Steinbrenner could have been misinterpreted is that he wasn’t really sure what message he wanted to communicate. He may have wanted to criticize Jeter directly, but was afraid to take on the Yankee superstar. Or, he may have wanted to make some general statement about overpaid baseball superstars not focusing on the game. The problem is he used vague and ambiguous language, which left too much to interpretation.
But there is a larger communication lesson here that goes beyond the baseball diamond or the corporate board room, which is that we need to become aware of how we communicate in ways that can easily be misinterpreted. For example, the other day, I said to my wife Jennifer; “We are out of conditioner.” When she responded that she wished I would have told her when she was going to the store, I immediately reacted by saying, “I’m sorry, I’ll make a list next time.” Predictably, a silly argument ensued.
I thought I was simply making a point about being out of conditioner. She interpreted it as my criticizing her on some level. Then again, the sarcastic tone of my voice while saying it could easily have allowed her to become defensive and think that the message went well beyond hair products. (I know it’s ridiculous.)
The fact is, sarcasm, ambiguous language and the tone of ones voice are just some of the reasons why our words get interpreted differently than we may have intended. Another factor is time of day. Consider this. You’ve been up for hours, but the person you are communicating with just woke up. You are focused, firing on all cylinders, and they are wiping the sleep out of their eyes and cobwebs out of their brain. But you are convinced you are both on the same plane. You are not. Miscommunication happens all the time in these circumstances. Other factors include differences in age, culture, race and gender.
The lesson for all of us is to use our words (and delivery) more carefully and ask ourselves where the potential for misunderstanding (or unnecessary conflict) exists and work hard to be understood as we intended. It’s harder than you think. Just try it.