Change Work July 2015

Don't take this the wrong way...

People take offence. Even when none is intended. Or when not much is intended. When Marco Materazzi said whatever he said to Zinedine Zidane during the 2006 World Cup final, even if he meant to provoke, he must have been very surprised to be head-butted in the chest. Who'd have thought the captain of France would react so strongly to get himself sent off in his last match?

I'm reminded that one of the presuppositions of NLP is: "The meaning of a communication is the response you get."

It's a very practical assertion that whatever you intended to convey, what you meant, in a communication is irrelevant to how it will be received and understood. Meaning will be attached to it by the reader/viewer/listener consistent with their view of the world at that moment and completely independently from your view.

Now I'm very aware that this is leading straight into the debate about freedom of speech and whether journalists and other writers should moderate their words when they know that they risk offending strongly held beliefs. The only contribution I can make to that argument today is to point out that the "right to freedom of speech" is itself a belief - and one that is not universally held!

When you attempt to communicate, whether by sending an email, publishing an article or (potentially most painfully) making a speech, it's very easy to blame the audience when it all goes wrong. "They misunderstood"; "They're ignorant"; "They didn't listen".

I just saw a TV clip of Tony Blair's infamous address to the annual conference of the Women's Institute in 2000. He was slow-handclapped and several delegates walked out on him. Apparently, as a non-party-political organisation, they resented the content of the speech and felt they were being exploited by the Prime Minister for political gain.

TB might well have said, "I'm a politician! What did they expect?" and dismissed them as out of touch and reactionary. But really, the responsibility for what happened was all his. If he'd researched his audience he could have done a better job, but perhaps he thought that there was little news value in the event and so didn't make the effort. Of course the fact that he was heckled became the biggest news that day.

A stereotype of the English is that we are really bad at learning other languages and when abroad we attempt to communicate by speaking English, but slower and louder. But even we recognise that it really helps to have a common language and, secretly, wish that we'd paid more attention in language lessons at school.

Now I'm arguing that a common language isn't always enough to ensure understanding. Your words will be recognised by the listener sure enough, and translated into mental images, sounds and feelings (the internal representation) but there's no guarantee that their representation will be the same, or even similar, to what you were thinking about when you formed your communication. If your goal is to communicate truly (as opposed to just getting your opinion on the record) then you have to be looking and listening for the response. Facial expression, gestures, posture and eye movements - as well as verbal replies - will tell you a lot about how the message has been received. Delegates walking out on you is also a pretty strong clue!

Notice it's "how" the message is received. The non-verbal signals you get back reveal the other's emotional state and whether they are thinking visually, auditorily or kinaesthetically. They do not tell you about the content of their thinking. You need to hear or read their reply to get that - and then of course the above process of translation and misunderstanding starts again, this time in your head, and you might well get it wrong!

Of course your listener or reader won't necessarily agree with what you're saying. That's out of your control. But it's your job, as the communicator, to make sure that they have understood you. Then you stand a chance of persuading them to your view.

It's not about who's right and who's wrong, it's about how you make sure that the idea you intended to share has been absorbed, more or less, by your listener. That must be the first goal of communication.

So, anticipate their response, notice the actual response and try again.

Oh, and be prepared for the occasional head-butt!