Make sure you're understood

2019-10-06 2 min read
    Thoughts vs understanding

    While browsing Twitter I saw a simple visualization that spoke to me. Communication is what makes us human and good communication is critical to strong teams. Historically, I’ve definitely fallen in assuming that when I spoke what people understood was exactly what I thought and was both surprised and disappointed when that wasn’t the case.

    That diagram is an oversimplification but it gets the point across. It’s an incredibly valuable skill to be able to translate your thoughts into the exact words that can be understood by others, especially extemporaneously. As with any skill, some people are able to do it naturally while others need to invest significant time and effort to be effective. An example of the former is Alexander Hamilton who was “able to speak extemporaneously for hours, all the while uttering grammatically correct sentences and perfectly formed paragraphs.” The other extreme was me when I started my career - I had a ton of thoughts going on in my mind at once and struggled conveying it in a way that was understood, especially without preparation. My first few jobs required me to present which improved my ability to communicate but the real improvement came from both writing and managing.

    There’s nothing like writing to clarify and refine my thoughts. Writing forces me to go beyond thoughts and translate them into prose which have a precise meaning. Seeing concrete words and sentences force me to confront the manifestation of my thoughts and consider how they will be interpreted and understood. It’s an amazing forcing function to go back to the drawing board and reformulate my thoughts into something crisper and more coherent.

    Managing allowed me to grow significantly in my empathy and is now a key part in how I communicate. Every time I speak I try to think about the audience - their mindset, their knowledge, their experience - and combine that knowledge with my goals to craft a message. It doesn’t always work but putting yourself in someone else’s shoes is critical in making sure your message is understood in the intended way.

    I don’t think I’ll ever be able to speak for hours on end but having that as a target is a great driver and motivator for improvement. Everyone has their own style and I believe it’s more effective to lean into it, warts and all, than it is to try to embrace something new. The end goal of communication is to be understood and it’s up to us to find and develop our approach.