What You Said vs. What You Meant

In my four years at Stanford, I took approximately 45 classes to obtain two degrees.

When I look back at which classes were most useful to me, there were five.

1) Introduction to Economics
2) Social Psychology
3) Statistics
4) Public Speaking
5) Peer Counseling

I’ve used what I learned in these 5 classes nearly every week of my now two-decades-long career.

To me, the most surprising class to be on that list was peer counseling.

The premise of the class was to train to be a peer counselor for the on-campus suicide prevention hotline.

In peer counseling, I learned to communicate in emotionally high stakes situations by learning to listen... really listen... to another person without judgment.

Since the class was not intended for psychotherapy professionals, we were not allowed to give any advice to the people we “counseled.”

Instead, all we were taught to do was to listen without judgment and to ask clarifying questions.

It never ceases to amaze me how much you can learn about and connect with another person by truly paying attention to them.

When you’re speaking to someone in a crisis but not allowed to inject any personal opinions into the conversation, you end up asking a lot of clarifying questions.

What do you mean by "you’re upset?"

What happened?

How did you feel about what happened?

During my many role playing practice sessions, I came to appreciate that what people say versus what they mean aren’t always the same thing.

While they’re usually related, small differences between literal words and intended meaning can have unintended consequences.

This is part of the reason why as peer counselors we weren’t allowed to give advice and assessments.

In addition to not being qualified to do so, it’s just far too easy to misunderstand what the other person intended.

People in crisis aren’t always the most precise in their communication.

There’s a lesson in all of this for you in both your personal and professional communications.

First, when somebody says something, don’t react immediately to what they said.

Allow room for the possibility that what they said versus what they meant were not the same thing.

Ask clarifying questions.

What do you mean by that?

Can you give me an example of a situation that reflects your concern?

If that issue were handled better, what would it have looked like instead?

Conversely, when you communicate with others, be as precise as possible in your choice of words.

The other day, my daughter asked me to do something. I did what she asked, but she was upset.

I said, “Why are you upset?”

She said, “Daddy, you didn’t do what I wanted.”

I replied, “I’m sorry... but I’m confused. I thought I did exactly what you asked me to do.”

She responded, “You did, but that wasn’t what I wanted.”

I said, “If you don’t say what you mean, then you don’t really mean what you say. Don’t get mad at me for doing exactly as you asked me to do.”

It’s an important life lesson.

Choose your words carefully. Say precisely what you mean. When you do, others will trust that you mean what you say.

Here’s my challenge for you. In your next significant communication, go more slowly.

Think a second or two longer before you speak.

Is what you’re about to say or write REALLY what you mean?

Could what you’re about to say be misinterpreted?

If so, could you rephrase what you say to be more precise?

Words matter.

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