What you heard is not what I meant!

by  Sonia Di Maulo  |  Leadership Development

“I know that you believe you understand what you think I said, but I’m not sure you realize that what you heard is not what I meant.” Robert McCloskey

You walk away from the conversation thinking, I am sure he knows what I meant, after all he knows what I expect!

But does he really know what you meant… does he really know what you expect!

Each of us perceives and interprets differently. Cultivating a discipline for clarification is very important. If you don’t offer and ask for feedback frequently and consistently, you are at a disadvantage. Trust between leaders and employees won’t happen unless actions (both verbal and non-verbal) are demonstrated by both the leader and employee.

Without this trust, miscommunication and misinterpretation run rampant in organizations; fear, jealousy, insecurity, and lack of motivation and collaboration impact performance. This impacts customer relations and sales!

Does this description paint a realistic picture? Many of you know exactly what I mean!

Where is Communication in the Corporate Agenda?

There are many excellent workshops that provide techniques that improve communication excellence that help increase trust and collaboration among teams. These are excellent in the moment but the energy and enthusiasm they create are hard to sustain over time unless the whole organization takes responsibility for improving communication at all levels as part of the corporate strategy.

High performing organizations put communications at the top of their agendas.

But what if you are alone in a sea of miscommunication? The responsibility of cultivating a discipline for clarification is yours alone. As a leader, lead by example. As an employee, protect your motivation and become an example.

Protect your Motivation

One technique that can help cultivate a discipline for clarification is to ask for feedback. This is a critical skill to master, and its benefits outweigh the risk of learning the truth!

“Words are, of course, the most powerful drug used by mankind.” Rudyard Kipling

Your colleagues will begin to see you as brave, confident, professional, and resourceful, and as you integrate the feedback you receive, communicate the results, and recognize those who provided input, you will learn first-hand how to cultivate trust and collaboration!

The key is to practice the exercise below frequently and consistently no matter what the outcome at first.

Goal: Help others deliver feedback that is useful, focused, and motivating – get the information you need to improve.

Why protect your motivation?

  • When asking for feedback about your performance (a report, meeting, or one-on-one interaction), it’s your responsibility to guide feedback you receive.
  • If you don’t lead this feedback interaction you will be given all kinds of feedback. Some that may motivate you, some that may demotivate you.
  • The feedback will come based on the other person’s point of view and it’s not that person’s responsibility to protect your motivation, only to provide you with feedback.
  • They may not know how to deliver feedback that inspires you to action.

How does it work?

  • Be clear on what you are looking for. What is your purpose for getting feedback?
  • Ask one or two specific questions. Tip: If you can’t answer the questions specifically, then keep working the questions!
  • Ask for 3 + 1 feedback with details: three things they liked and why, one thing you can do to improve your performance with details. Tip: If you would like more than one improvement opportunity, explain that you’ll fix that one thing and come back for another review. Getting a list of 10 things to change from 5 people all at once may de-motivate you and slow you down. Working on the most important thing at a time is best.
  • Complete the task, improve your performance, and stay motivated!

What is one other benefit of using this technique? What is one potential challenge of asking for feedback in this way? What technique have you used to help protect your motivation?

“Watch your thoughts, for they become words.
Watch your words, for they become actions.
Watch your actions, for they become habits.
Watch your habits, for they become character.
Watch your character, for it becomes your destiny.” Author Unknown

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What People Are Saying

Georgia Feiste  |  02 Feb 2011  |  Reply

Oh, so true, so true! Communication will either make or break an organization, and open communication is only fostered through trust across the board! Sonia – what a great post!

I am working with my clients to seek feedback right away – not only on what they said, but what was heard, how it was heard, and what action steps people are taking away. This eliminates so much heartache and breakdown.

Thanks for sharing!


Sonia Di Maulo  |  02 Feb 2011  |  Reply


It seems so obvious that we should clarify, but it so rarely happens, which presents an amazing opportunity for us all and our organizations.

I am kind of addicted to this stuff and getting people on board is my mission!

Thank you so much for sharing your views here, Georgia, it made my day!!!! Great to have you as a member of the Authentic Leadership in Montreal Linkedin Group too!

Be well and looking forward to staying connected…

Roy Atkinson  |  02 Feb 2011  |  Reply

Your post hits home. Most of the major mistakes I have made in communication stem from what Chip and Dan Heath call “the curse of knowledge”–our tendency to forget that others don’t know what we know. There is one note that gave me pause:
“High performing organizations put communications at the top of their agendas.”
The agenda isn’t where it needs to be. It’s far to easy to say, “We care about communication,” and then create a process for getting messages to those who need to hear them that is fraught with intimidation and the opportunity for reprisal. (Been there, unfortunately.) Communication needs to be at the top of the hearts and minds of managers and leaders at all times. It must be encouraged and practiced. Silence should never be accepted as a response.

Thanks for your thoughtful post!

Sonia Di Maulo  |  03 Feb 2011  |  Reply


Wonderful comment… thank you for taking the time to share your thoughts and connect with me here!

I agree 100%… it is too easy to say communication is a priority and then leave it to chance that everyone follows. I am deeply passionate about taking agenda items and making them actionable (figuring out the “how”): simple easy-to-adopt techniques that get people to quick wins, success, and motivation to do more, hence this post and more on my site (www.readytofeedback.com). Yesterday I also took a BOLD new step and launched a new video blog aimed at offering easy techniques to better communication.

Love this… so powerful and true: Communication needs to be at the top of the hearts and minds of managers and leaders at all times. It must be encouraged and practiced. Silence should never be accepted as a response.

Hoping to stay connected and to learn more about you!


CL Sullivan  |  24 Jul 2017  |  Reply

The quote above attributed to an unknown author, is a Mahatma Gandhi quote.

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