Misunderstood Intentions

Has anyone ever misinterpreted your email and been really upset with you? I’ve witnessed or experienced this at least three times in the last few days. First, information shared was intended to provide direct answers and demonstrate effort to a team who had questions, yet some thought it was written with a smug attitude. Then, an email that was intended to provide direct feedback to the team was perceived as “mean-spirited.” Third, some of the information shared via a report was assumed to mean something different than intended, and it caused some angst for a few people.

In each of the situations, the intention of the person communicating was positive, yet either something got lost in the translation of the message or the receiver read meaning that wasn’t intended into the message.

This happens on a regular basis for most of us – especially when we are communicating in writing. We can’t hear “tone”, or see a smile – and words can sting.

So how do we get around this? I’ve got some ideas for you:

  1. When any issue is sensitive and/or the relationship is low in trust, have a conversation instead of sending an email. A two-way dialogue creates a significantly greater chance that the message will be heard as intended. If you are thinking this takes more time, think about the time and energy that goes into fixing a situation where there has been a misinterpretation.
  2. Share your intention before you ask questions or provide feedback. While your good intentions might seem obvious to you, they might not be to the receiver. Questions may be perceived as pushback, when you only want to be sure you have clarity. Feedback may be interpreted like criticism or pessimism, when your intention is to support an idea by making it better. Before you jump with your feedback, set the intention. Say, “I’d like to share with you my reaction and some ideas that I believe can improve this product/process.” Or if you want to ask questions, say, “I’d like to be clear on what you are proposing, may I ask some questions before we go on?”
  3. Don’t assume the intention of someone else –ask them instead. If you find your feathers are ruffled in response to an email, check in before you blow up. Prior to defending your idea, erupting in anger, or worse sharing the email with a third party and complaining behind the senders back – ask some questions. Questions are a way for you to check in and understand their intent. Ideally, at this point, you pick up the phone or walk down the hall and have a real conversation. You might say, “I got your email, and I wanted to be sure I understood your questions/comments before I responded.” This response is direct, honest and unemotional. It should launch a healthy discussion – assuming the intent of both people is to work this out together.

Bottom-line, we often misinterpret the intentions of others and react in ways that deter healthy conversations and can damage relationships. Slow down, check in and for heaven’s sake – pick up the phone!

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