Do you agree? Leslie A.M. Smith

Interpretation and Perception

Communication can make or break a team. We can never assume that everyone interprets language and its meanings the same way. Whether you lead a group of employees, volunteers, consultants, or your clients, you need to be mindful of the way others may perceive your message.

The goal is to clarify so that you are on the same wavelength. Most miscommunication comes from both, or multiple parties, making assumptions about what they think the other person either already knows or “should” understand. Even something that you think is universal—like “be on time”—might mean different things to different people. For instance, does ‘on time’ qualify to arrive at the specified time and then get your coffee? Is there an ‘arrival time’ built into the agenda expecting everyone to help themselves to lunch before the actual meeting is called to order? People bring their past experiences with them into their new experiences and assume things will be the same. 

Print out the below list as is or customize phrases for your particular culture and have each member of your team complete it independently then share in a group discussion. I’ve Bolded the terms that might be ambiguous and left up to each person’s own understanding. Some of this language is often used to bluff and give an impression of things that may or may not be accurate. As a manager or leader, you need to press those conversations and clarify so the truth becomes apparent. 


We have so many fun employee events planned for the year. 

In your mind, how many is ‘so many’? Is that once a quarter, once a month, every week? And what defines fun? Are you talking a book club or happy hours? 

We will reach consensus on all decisions. 

First, define who is included in WE. Second, consensus is defined as ‘general agreement.’ To some people consensus is a simple majority (50% plus one), others see it as what you can go along with but don’t necessarily agree completely. Some leaders are reluctant to move ahead with something that has most of the team only lukewarm on the idea while others move forward full force if a third of the group agrees, a third is so-so, and a third disagree completely.                  

Your Turn! What do each of these phrases indicate to you and to your team members?

  • I’ll get right back to you. 
  • Be here on time.  
  • Let’s have some nibbles at our meetings.
  • A number of people have told me they were dissatisfied.
  • We have a big client coming on board.
  • We are going to make a ton of money this year!
  • We are going to have to tighten the purse strings this year if we don’t turn things around!
  • Do it in our signature style!

Did I Miss Something?

What other phrases have caused confusion in your organization or company? I’d love to hear more examples of how sometimes conversations go sideways, or even cause panic, despite our best efforts to be clear communicators. If you’re writing instructions, I recommend you let someone outside of the group doublecheck. More on that here.

Leslie A.M. Smith founded McCormick L.A. in 1994 offering public relations and marketing consulting to nonprofits and small businesses. She is the author of  Laws of Promotion. The 50-page promotional guide for small businesses and local nonprofits iavailable now on Amazon. Reach out with your questions about marketing and PR to be addressed in this blog.

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