That’s Not What I Said!

By Heather Baldwin

Communication involves at least two people, which means that no matter how clearly you think you’ve said something, there is always the chance listeners will misunderstand what you’ve said. But what about listeners who intentionally hear something other than what you said? It’s a fairly common problem that usually occurs when listeners’ needs conflict with the information they receive. In those cases, listeners may inflate, deflate or erase what you intend, say Victor Buzzotta and Robert Lefton, authors of Dimensional Selling (McGraw-Hill, 2005). Here’s a look at each situation.

Inflation. Prospects who have a strong need for esteem, security or acceptance may inflate what they hear by making it more emphatic or more definite than you intended. For example, say a prospect tells you your price is about 5% too high and asks if you can drop it. You respond: I don’t know if my company can do that; I’ll need to check. This type of prospect will hear you say no, making your response more emphatic than it was. You may see a behavior change because the prospect has decided you said you couldn’t do what was asked. Conversely, if you tell the prospect that the discount might be possible, the prospect will hear a yes.

Deflation. Prospects who deflate what you say make your ideas less emphatic or less definite than you intended. For example, if you say prices are certain to rise in September, these prospects will hear there’s a possibility prices might go up in the fall.

Erasure. This occurs when prospects hear you, but wipe out your message because they are so uncomfortable with what you said. “Prospects may not remember hearing what you said at all or may be convinced they heard it wrong,” say Buzzotta and Lefton. For example, if you remark to people with strong social needs that their decision will save their company $20,000 annually but will likely be unpopular with employees, they may block the last part of your message.

So how do you avoid these situations? You probe, say the authors. When you give a piece of important information and suspect inflation, deflation or erasure is occurring, ask prospects to summarize what they heard. If there’s a disconnect, clarify it right then. If they reflect the information accurately, you usually can relax because people rarely try to alter something once they’ve said it out loud.