My Diet Coke had gotten warm, so I asked the waitress for “some more ice.” A few minutes later, instead of the ice, she brought me another bowl of white rice.
I said “more ice”; she heard “more rice.” So whose fault was it? (And good thing I didn’t say “some ice”…or I might have ended up with “some mice”!)
It happens all the time: We say something that is crystal clear in our own mind, and yet the person on the receiving end hears something completely different. The ice vs. rice mix-up was a relatively low-cost, low stakes mistake (and, I actually wanted some more white rice anyway), but what if the stakes were higher?
What are the potential costs when an important job interview or work-related communication is lost in translation?
Earlier in my career I was working for a (now-defunct) themed entertainment design and production company in L.A. that produced audio-animatronic (i.e., robotic) figures for theme parks around the world. One of our new clients, a theme park in Shenzhen, China ordered a menagerie of life-size robotic animals to be placed at various appropriate locations within the park: three elephants, three sheep, and two cows. And my job, as the project manager, was to make sure they got designed and built, shipped from L.A. to China, and then installed to be fully operational in time for the grand opening which I would be flying all the way to China to attend.
It was my first-ever time as a project manager (as well as my first time ever out of the U.S.), and I was so proud that everything was going according to plan: The elephants trumpeted and sprayed water from their trunks; the sheep moved their heads, wagged their tails, and baaaad; and the cows chewed their cud and moooed.
They all looked so real when installed in their new habitats that the tourists believed they were actually live animals.
So, “what went wrong?” you may be thinking.
Well, as it turned out, what the client actually wanted was not two “cows,” but two “water buffaloes”!
Talk about lost in translation! When the client ordered the two “cows” (by phone and fax – this was in the days pre-email and pre-internet), our expert design team did some research and determined that the Chinese Yellow Cow (pictured below) was what the client envisioned. And as a newbie project manager, who was I to question the judgment of our highly-experienced senior design team?
So after all the internal design sketches, engineering drawings, mock-up models, etc., what the client ended up with was two misplaced mechanical yellow cows standing in a simulated rice paddy field where two water buffaloes should have been. To put this into perspective, it would be like placing a kangaroo on an American dairy farm. Completely ridiculous. In retrospect, it’s hard to believe that no one (including me) ever thought to send a picture to the client and simply ask: “Is this what you mean?”
It’s All Up to You: Six Simple Tips
The bottom line is that when it comes to communication, you can’t control the other party; you can only control yourself and what you say, ask, and do.
So here are six simple-yet-powerful tips to help you avoid potential misunderstandings, whether during a grueling interview process, speaking with your manager, or meeting with a client:
People are not mind readers: One time, a manager asked me, “Did that package come in yet?” When I asked, “Which package?” her sarcastic response was: “The one I’ve been waiting for – which do you think!” OK…that was helpful — thanks for clarifying. When communicating, use empathy to put yourself in the shoes of your listener (or reader, in the case of an email), and ask yourself if your message is self-explanatory. And if not, then simplify and clarify. When on the receiving end, it’s always best to ask for clarification rather than to get the message wrong.
Validate understanding: A boss once casually said to me, “That’s a good point. We need to look into that.” A week later he asked me why I hadn’t gotten back to him with an answer. Apparently that “we” meant “me.” So keep in mind Stephen Covey’s Habit #5 (from “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People”): “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.” Clarify that you’re on the same page, especially if there is any ambiguity, doubt, or potential for misinterpretation or misunderstanding.
For example, during a job interview, you might ask the interviewer a clarifying question like, “So, when you say this job entails a fair amount of travel, would you say that means 25, 50 or 75 percent of the time?” While some people love being on the road (as I did earlier in my career), others prefer staying close to home (as I do now). So it’s always best to gain clarity sooner rather than later.
Read between the lines: Management guru Peter Drucker once said that the most important part of listening is to hear what isn’t being said. In a classic movie joke, a guy asks the hotel clerk, “Does your dog bite?” After getting bitten while trying to pet the dog, the guest exclaims, “I thought you said your dog doesn’t bite!” The clerk’s reply: “That is not my dog.”
Look for cues and clues, and seek to answer “the question behind the question,” i.e., what are they really asking or looking for. This is especially important when meeting with a boss, client, or interviewer. For example, if an interviewer asks, “Have you ever done this type of work before?” don’t take the question literally and simply answer with a “Yes” or a “No.” What they are really asking is, “Are you capable of doing this type of work here, in the future?” So that’s the question you need to answer.
It’s not just your words – but your tone of voice and body language: Let’s say your boss questions you on the actions of one of your employees and you respond with this simple, seven-word sentence. See how the meaning changes based solely on the word emphasized:
I never asked him to do that! (i.e., someone else must have asked him to)
I NEVER asked him to do that! (emphatic denial that you ever made that request)
I never asked HIM to do that! (i.e., you asked someone else to do it)
I never asked him to DO that! (emphatic denial of the action taken)
I never asked him to do THAT! (i.e., you asked him to do something completely different)
Be aware of how you say what you say (especially in emails!) as a misinterpretation by the reader/listener can completely distort your message and your intentions – as well as negatively impacting the relationship. Be very aware of, and intentional about, how you say what you say. The burden of clarity of meaning is on you.
Use visuals, non-verbal cues, analogies, and metaphors to get your ideas across: Words don’t always speak for themselves. And, as the saying goes, a picture is worth a thousand of them. So point, gesture, use illustrations, diagrams, examples, etc., to clarify your meaning and improve your chances of being understood. Same for the use of visual language to help you make abstract ideas more concrete. When using metaphors, analogies, and examples, be sure to use ones that your audience/listener/reader will understand and relate to. For example, referencing a baseball analogy with someone who doesn’t know anything about baseball may not resonate as much as, say, a soccer, or theater, or other analogy. Look to speak the other person’s language.
Watch out for jargon and acronyms: They make for a great communication shorthand with people who know what they mean, but end up having the opposite effect with people who don’t. At a networking event, I once mentioned that I used to work for the “AMA.” One guy thought I was talking about the American Medical Association and the other guy thought I meant the American Marketing Association. I was actually talking about the American Management Association. Every industry, company, department, and function has its own language. So it’s always best to define acronyms and/or jargon the first time they’re used…just to be sure. And if you’re not sure, it’s always best to just ask.
As effective communication is the key to any relationship, and is the primary unit of interaction and exchange in most of our jobs in this knowledge- and information-based working world, it’s more important than ever to make sure that we are heard and understood correctly – and that others hear and understand us. And, it’s entirely our job to get it right.
Take it from me…so you don’t end up with rice, when you need ice.
Or, even worse, a cow…when what you really needed was a water buffalo.