Harvey Mackay Academy's Blog

A doctor decided to put his overweight patient on an unconventional diet. He advised him, “Eat your regular meals for two days, then ‘skip’ a day. Do this for two weeks and come back to see me. I would expect you to lose at least five pounds.”

Two weeks later the patient returned for his appointment and surprised the doctor by losing 20 pounds.

“You lost all that weight by following my instructions?” the doctor asked.

The man responded, “Yes, but I thought I was going to drop dead on the third day.”

“From hunger?” asked the doctor.

“No,” said the man. “From skipping.”

Do you think the doctor rephrased the instructions for the next patient?

Avoiding misunderstandings is fundamental to a successful workplace, not to mention life in general. Getting along is largely dependent on your communication skills. If doing your job is important, you need to let people know what you’re doing, and you need to understand what they want from you.

Curious though it may seem, effective communication starts with listening, not talking. Expressing yourself is vital, but understanding what others are telling you allows you to make your arguments more persuasive.

Warren Buffett, one of the world’s richest persons, famously said: “If you improve your communication skills, I will guarantee you that you’ll earn 10% to 50% more money over your lifetime.”

It’s been said that a message sent is only as good as the receiver’s perception of it. Verbal communications tend to create confusion and misunderstanding for a remarkably simple reason: the 500 most commonly used words in the English language have more than 14,000 definitions.

To make communication really work, we need to make sure the people we’re communicating with understand what we are saying as well as we do. Communication requires both effective sending and receiving. To avoid a breakdown in communication, break down your message so that everyone can understand it.

As tempting as it may be to use big words, or too many words, try to keep your messages as simple and direct as possible. Too much fancy language tends to confuse the listener/reader and dilute the message.

One of the best examples I can offer is Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. At just 271 words, it is considered to be one of the greatest and most influential statements on the American national purpose. That speech wasn’t the main event of the day – it followed a two-hour, 13,000-word speech by Edward Everett. That speech was well received, but how many of us have read and remember Everett’s speech?

Include everyone in the same message, rather than relying on another to share and interpret your intentions. Keeping everyone on the same page prevents misunderstandings and hurt feelings. If someone has questions or doesn’t understand what you are trying to accomplish, share that information too (without calling out the questioner.) Others may have the same concerns, so listen to the feedback and respond accordingly.

Craft your message to fit the occasion. Bullet points, timelines, committee assignments, goals – whatever makes the most sense to convey the information. Reread your communications before you send them. That extra step can help you find any confusing or unclear statements.

If you are frequently misunderstood, run your remarks by an unbiased person. If they have trouble comprehending your message, clear it up before you circulate it. Saving time and confusion works to everyone’s advantage.

In short, showing that you care about communication demonstrates respect for your co-workers who are serious about the project at hand. That’s what leaders do.

The Chinese sage Confucius was once asked his views on the importance of good communications in getting things done.

“What,” asked his questioner, “is the first thing to be done if good work is to be accomplished?”

Confucius replied, “Getting the definitions right, using the right words.”

Asked to elaborate, Confucius explained in effect that “when words are improperly applied, issues are misunderstood. When issues are misunderstood, the wrong plans are devised. When the wrong plans are devised, wrong commands are given. When wrong commands are given, the wrong work is performed. When the wrong work is performed, organizations fail. When organizations fail, people suffer.”

Mackay’s Moral: I know you believe you understand what you think I said, but I am not sure you realize that what you heard is not what I meant.

About the Author

Seven-time, New York Times best-selling author of "Swim With The Sharks Without Being Eaten Alive," with two books among the top 15 inspirational business books of all time, according to the New York Times. He is one of America’s most popular and entertaining business speakers, and currently serves as Chairman at the MackayMitchell Envelope Company, one of the nation’s major envelope manufacturers, producing 25 million envelopes a day.