Wholehearted Leadership Opinion: One simple question that can help you communicate better

If the people you lead hear something different than what you tell them, remember that it's your job to be clear

Credit: Ridofrans/iStock

If the people you lead hear something different than what you tell them, remember that it’s your job to be clear

She thought I was joking.
“No, seriously, I’m not joking.”
“Yes, you are—you’re pulling my leg.”
“No, I’m not. That’s really what I hear.”
My wife and I had been watching the national news. A story came on about the latest Internet sensation to capture social media across the country. It’s the Yanny or Laurel debate.
Someone had posted an audio recording with a simple question, “Yanny or Laurel?” The recording is simply one name repeated over and over again.
Some people hear Yanny, and others hear Laurel. When the audio recording was played on the news, my wife clearly heard Laurel repeatedly. She gave me a quizzical look and said, “I don’t get it. It’s clearly Laurel.”
That’s when I replied, “Ah, no—it’s clearly Yanny.”
The debate was not fully on.  
I searched out the recording on YouTube and we both listened again—very intently. Once again she heard Laurel and I heard Yanny. Neither of us, no matter how hard we tried, could hear any semblance of what the other was hearing.
If you haven’t heard the recording, please go search it out and listen, but you mustn’t do it alone. Listen with other people, and ask what they’re hearing.
I’m not going to try to explain the deep science behind it, but simply stated, one name is composed of primarily higher frequencies and other of mostly lower frequencies. Supposedly our ears are tuned toward certain frequencies, so we we hear those above the others.
Therefore, some will hear Yanny and others will hear Laurel.  
The Yanny or Laurel exercise is a brilliant demonstration of the challenges that leaders, and indeed all human beings, face on an ongoing basis. As a leader, have you ever given what you thought were very clear instructions to someone? You even asked them if they understood your instructions, and they replied, “Yes.” 
Then, when you followed up to monitor progress, you were shocked to discover that they had it all wrong. How did they get it so wrong? Your instructions were so clear, and you even checked to ensure they had indeed understood you.
Clearly they have a problem.
Or have you ever said something to someone you love—perhaps your significant other—and it set them off somehow? Shocked by their response you asked them what’s wrong, only to have them tell you what they just heard you say—but it wasn’t what you had said.
Clearly they have a problem.
Well, not really. Both these situations are an example of Yanny or Laurel in real life. You say “Yanny,” and they hear “Laurel.” How on earth does that happen? Who knows, but it happens all the time.
So I’m going to give you the key to preventing communication misunderstandings. With this simple tool you can eliminate, or greatly reduce, Yanny or Laurel moments.
I call it rearticulation.
After you have given a directive to someone within your leadership sphere, ask them a simple question:
“Can you please tell me what you heard me telling you so I can understand if I’ve communicated clearly?”
Did you catch the nuance? Definitely do not say, “Tell me what you heard me telling you.” That will only make people very defensive.
You want to ask them to help you understand if you have communicated clearly. Good communication is the responsibility of the communicator, therefore, you simply want to find out if you have done a good job of communicating.
You’re asking them to rearticulate what they’ve heard you saying. If they reply, “Laurel,” when you were really saying, “Yanny,” don’t get upset with them. Recognize that you simply have to come at your communication from another direction. Don’t just repeat what you said louder and slower, though; say it differently.  
Your job as a leader is to ensure communication is clear. Become a master of rearticulation, and you’ll discover when clear communication hasn’t taken place and be able to fix it.
David MacLean empowers CEOs, entrepreneurs and executives to dare greatly in his role as B.C. best practice chair for The Executive Committee Canada (TEC). David also writes and speaks on Wholehearted Leadership: inspiring, encouraging and equipping leaders to harness their most valuable asset—their HEART. You can reach him at dmaclean@tec-canada.com.