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Owning Miscommunications


November 2007

If you shape your communication to achieve a particular result, is that manipulation? This episode tackles that question head on, then proposes a technique for achieving clarity.

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November 2007

Owning Miscommunications

Tom Henschel

Kristin, a gifted colleague, was working with me on a large project for a client. Our contact was the director of operations who had a communication style I called “pinballing”: he’d begin a sentence talking about a difficult direct report and end the sentence telling us about a process in the plant that needed refinement. Kristin and I would leave our meetings with him feeling we’d run a marathon uphill in the heat on an empty stomach.

One particular goal-setting meeting with Michael, the pinballer, was feeling especially difficult. But then Kristin did something I often coach others to do and it worked beautifully.

Michael was talking about the services he wanted from us in the coming quarters. He was, as usual, barely touching on one item before bouncing to the next. I was scribbling notes as fast as I could in an effort to follow his thinking when Kristin began to shake her head ever so slightly while Michael spoke. When he came to a natural pause, she spoke very slowly.

“I’m sorry, Michael,” she said, looking down at her notes, “I think I missed something. When you were talking about the conflict resolution training, I completely missed who the participants for that class would be.”

I didn’t dare make eye contact with Kristin; we both knew Michael hadn’t said a word about who the participants for that training would be. But he did now. And it was critically important information.

In another few minutes, Kristin put her hand out on the table and said, “Maybe this is a flaw in my thinking but I don’t think mixing the coaching with the performance reviews is going to get you the results you want.”

Michael was quick to agree that that was not a good plan—although he had suggested it just a minute earlier.

What Kristin was doing with enormous success was taking responsibility for the communication—or the miscommunication. The two phrases “I think I missed something” and “maybe this is a flaw in my thinking” made any misunderstandings her doing. Her willingness to cast herself as “the problem” allowed Michael to clarify his ideas without defensiveness. Very effective.

I coached Caroline, a client of mine, to use a similar tool to resolve a serious issue.

Caroline had accepted a transfer to a remote outpost with the understanding that the skills she’d learn there over twelve or eighteen months would allow her to return to a major production facility in a senior leadership role. Four months into her remote posting, she was unable to see that she was learning anything new at all. She felt dead-ended and concerned about her career.

As we discussed this situation, she mentioned two people who had been instrumental in persuading her to accept the position: one had held the position before and another was the head of the facility that would bring her back from her current post.

I asked what she was hearing from these two fellows. “Nothing,” she said regretfully. “And if I bring it up to them I’m going to sound like I’m a whiner or ungrateful or high maintenance.”

That was when I taught Caroline the phrase, “Help me understand.”

“Help me understand” is extremely useful when used as a straightforward request for information. Here’s how I thought Caroline could use it:

“I know you thought there were important skills for me to learn here. I’m afraid I may not be focusing on the right things. Help me understand what you wanted me to learn while I’m here.”

Like the phrases Kristin used with Michael, “help me understand” casts you in the role of learner. When asked in a neutral, inquisitive manner, it takes away any sense of blame or accusation. It allows the other person to respond without defensiveness. It certainly is better than any phrase that sounds like “but you said…”

Caroline, always conscious of relationships and appearances, was concerned that this sort of conscious phrasing would be manipulative. I said it would indeed if she were using it to gain advantage.

Manipulation, to me, implies that I end up elevated and you end up diminished. If I get you to do something that moves me one step up while moving you one step down, that is manipulative. But “help me understand” doesn’t put anyone up over any one else; it is truly win-win.

One caution: in some cases, especially with some women, “help me understand” can sound like a plea for help. It shouldn’t. I cautioned Caroline to be sure to use it without diminishment. “Help me understand” should sound like the last question from Sherlock Holmes, full of insight, interest and authority. It is the inquiry of a fast-thinking professional who has spotted a gap.

The important, common theme in all these phrases is the responsibility the speaker takes for the success of the communication. When you speak these phrases as an equal, they model humility, remove blame and lower barriers. They are, quite simply, very powerful ways to sound like a leader.

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