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How Might My Message Be Interpreted?

by ELISABETH SEAMAN

Co-Author of Conflict The Unexpected Gift

How much thought do we put into messages we send these days? Let’s look at some questions we need to ask ourselves before we send off a message:

  • How do I want my message to be received? 
  • What kind of a response am I looking for? 
  • How well do I know the recipient of my message? 
  • How likely is the other person to respond to the message I send? 

This may be a lot to think about before writing a text or an email, but it may be crucial to maintaining a positive relationship with each other.  This is where empathy and diplomacy come into play.

In our book, Conflict – The Unexpected Gift, we write, “Empathy is an essential ingredient in listening for deep understanding. It draws on the capacity to understand other people’s thoughts and to feel their emotions.” That goes for written communications as well as those in person. When speaking or writing, let’s put ourselves in the shoes of the other person and think about how they might receive the message we’re giving.

It takes effort to consider how someone may receive a message we send. Putting ourselves into our recipient's situation, we may realize how differently they may receive the message we intended to send. We need to ask ourselves, what wording would resonate with her and still get my message across to her?

Consider an example of how wording can make a difference. At a recent study session I attended, a team was making a presentation. At one point I thought I heard a team member say that if we didn’t accept the team’s recommendation, he was out of there and was done with this project. At the end of the study session, participants in the meeting were asked for feedback.

I wrote a first draft of a message back to the team, commenting on various aspects of the meeting. In this draft I also wrote that what the team member had said was unacceptable and an affront to everyone concerned. However, before sending the message, I thought about how this would be received by the team, especially by the team member who had made the strident declaration.

So, instead I wrote, in a second draft of my message, “Did I hear correctly that XXX said he would take non-acceptance of the team’s proposal as a personal rejection and that he would not continue with the project? If so, the harsh statement he made can come across as intimidating and result in shutting down the conversation. I hope all of us can be more open to hearing each other’s questions and opinions even under trying conditions.”

I stated what I thought I had heard, putting it as a question, and following up with what I believed might be a better approach in the future. One outcome of my message was that the following day the person who had made the declaration at the study session, wrote to me and said he’d be glad to talk with me any time over issues to which I alluded in my email. He expressed no anger or animosity, but openness and a willingness to talk. We did meet the next day, had a most cordial conversation, he agreed that he could have stated his position more constructively and said he'd think about this in the future.

A little empathy and diplomacy can go a long way toward building and maintaining good feelings among coworkers, family members, friends, and even strangers.

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