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Why Don’t We Just Say What We Mean?


Have you thought one thing, but said something different? Sometimes we think, “I really wanted to say …, but I couldn’t/shouldn’t/didn’t.” The gap between what we think or feel and what comes out of our mouths varies often depending on our assessment of the situation.


Why don’t we say what we mean?


As social beings, we are raised to be polite and considerate of others. We learn at an early age what topics are taboo, what tone of voice is acceptable, and how to refine and edit statements. We discern what is appropriate to say to others, thereby filtering our message. We often have a sense of how what we say will be received; we assess the impact; and we often “tone down” or modify what we might otherwise say. This whole process may take only a few seconds and may even occur unconsciously. We also might deviate from our intended meaning in order to fit in a group. We may fear that if we say what we really want, we will be rejected. Having a sense of belonging is a powerful and basic human need for which we may compromise saying what we really think.


Different national and regional cultures also have different norms regarding direct and indirect communication. In some countries it would be rude to overtly state what one really means. More likely it would be hinted at or buried in the context, to be understood only by people who are very familiar with or grew up in that culture. Cross-cultural communication becomes very complex when it comes to saying what one means and meaning what one says. This article focuses on U.S. and Canadian cultures. Note that there may be differences between these two countries and even regions within both countries.


So, if it is your goal, how can you say what you mean and mean what you say? Here are some guidelines toward this end:


Be specific

When you have something to say, state specifically what you want to talk about. Don’t use euphemisms and corporate-speak. The more specific you can be, the less you will fall into deviating from your intended talk and the less you will end up saying something you don’t mean. Especially at a work setting it is important to remain objective and avoid projecting fear or other emotions in the conversation.


Be intentional

Go into conversations with the intention to stay on topic, convey what you know, and state your truth. You may also hold the intention of maintaining harmony and respect, which affects how directly you speak and can temper how much you say what you actually feel and think.


Understand your audience

What you say and how you say it can depend on who the audience is. If you have a lot at stake or if you perceive the listener to be of certain status, you may couch your words with special care. Similarly, if you sense a certain educational level, you might adjust your words in such a way as to match it, thus altering what you actually mean. Understanding what motivates a listener can have an impact on what points you focus on.


Stay present

The more present you are, the more aware you can be about saying what you mean and meaning what you say. You remain focused on what you want to say without veering off course. Being present also means being aware of what you are saying in the moment.

Sometimes people agree with others to avoid embarrassment or conflict when in fact they do not agree at all. In that moment they may be swayed, or emotions may alter what they really feel or think. We may say “yes” when we really want to say “no,” especially when we are asked to help others, whether it be at work or elsewhere.


Manage emotions

It is important to be mindful of emotions when you’re speaking honestly and directly. Keeping your emotions regulated will help you stay on track, so that you can say what you mean. When emotions flare, it is more likely that you will exaggerate or say things you don’t really mean. Sometimes this is for effect, but it can skew the intent and the meaning.


Give and receive feedback

It is important that all parties feel confident that they will be told the truth. It can be helpful to ask others for feedback about how well they understand what you have said. Determine how much their feedback resonates with your intention and your perception. If you are going to engage in frank discussions, you need to be prepared to hear feedback that you might not like.


Stay with it

Remain in the conversation until you have said everything you need to say. You can agree to set a time limit at the beginning, but it should be agreed upon by everyone involved.


Check in

While you are speaking with others, consciously check in with yourself about the above recommendations. This is a good way to determine whether or not you are saying what you really mean. If not, you can change course and recommit to doing so. You can excuse yourself by saying, “That is not really what I meant” and restate your idea. Evaluate your tone, content, and intention. Check for consistency between your thoughts and your words.

With practice and over time, saying what you mean can give you more confidence in yourself, as well as credibility. Others will see you as someone who speaks genuinely, which builds trust and ease. Saying what you mean and meaning what you say, when done consistently, evoke honesty. Others usually feel comfortable with that. Also, getting past vague language and jargon can lead to more productive and effective communication.


What to do TODAY?

Karen Natasha Coaching helps many people access awareness about themselves. We help people shift their energy, so that they can move forward with assurance, confidence, and renewed energy to achieve their goals and bring their best selves to work. Whether it is preparing for presentations or talking to colleagues, we can help you gain confidence, skill, and practice in your communication. Contact Karen Natasha Coaching for a consultation to experience how we can help.


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