When people talk to one another, three outcomes are possible:
- they completely miss each other’s point (zero shared meaning),
- they understand a portion of each other’s intended meaning (partial shared meaning) or
- they completely understand each other (complete shared meaning).
When you miss the other person entirely, you feel like a zero.
When you completely understand the other person, you look like a hero.
Let’s look at each of them and turn you into a hero more often.
1. Zero shared meaning. “We need to be more transparent with our clients about our development schedule for new features,” Shelly says to her colleague Amanda. The next day, Shelly comes to work to find that Amanda has shared an internal scheduling document that lists the roll-out dates for all new features with all the company’s clients.
Shelly’s intention was to start the discussion or about being more transparent. Amanda understood this as an idea to act upon immediately. As you might suppose, Shelly was upset that Amanda had shared an internal document with clients.
2. Partial shared meaning. “We need to be more transparent with our clients about our development schedule for new features,” Shelly says to her colleague Amanda. “It’s not going to be a simple process and I’m not sure how much we can share,” Amanda replies. “Some of our customers will be upset to see how low on the priority list the features they are waiting for are.”
Amanda and Shelly agree in general on the premise, although there is some negotiation and compromise on how much detail to share.
3. Complete shared meaning. “We need to be more transparent with our clients about our development schedule for new features,” Shelly says to her colleague Amanda. “I couldn’t agree more,” Amanda replies. “I will set up a time on the calendar for us to draft a message to our clients and we can decide how much information to share and when.” Shelly nods in agreement, “Perfect.”
Amanda and Shelly are in lock step on both the need to share more information and on the route they will take to begin the new process. Although they are entering the conversation with their own experiences, they agree on the premise and the next steps.
This happens at work in conversation: we nail shared meaning, miss each other completely, or find some middle ground.
When you get partial or no shared meaning, ask yourself “Why?” What makes the difference for you in creating more shared meaning? A history of working well together? Similar demographics? Length of time in the organization?
Once you understand the “Why,” the “How” (as in, how you communicate with the person) will get easier to figure out. Next time you have a miscommunication (full or partial) ask yourself “Why?” and adjust how you communicate with them accordingly.