The Value of Communicating the Whole Story

Updated: Aug 6, 2021

Those of a certain vintage (like myself) have grown up watching the Simpsons. One of my favorite lines is the “Purple Monkey Dishwasher” from an earlier episode (here’s a clip for those who haven’t seen it). At the time of seeing it, I didn’t think much past the humor of it however later on in my career I have observed the ‘purple monkey dishwasher’ effect in action – and the effects were far less humorous.

The core of this scene revolves around communication. Bart Simpson says something to someone at the back of the line, that person says it to the next person in line, and so on until the last person in the line communicates it to the front of the stage. By then the message has been altered from its original meaning to something different, therefore giving the recipient at the end of the communication string a different message. We see this all the time in our lives right? Someone says something to someone else, that person relays the message to a third person, that third person relays the message to another party and so on. What we rely on (and often times blindly assume) is for the message to not be altered in any way as it makes its way down the communication chain. However this is normally not always the case. How we’ve received the message, how we interpret it, even our own personal biases can subconsciously alter how we perceive the message and subsequently how we communicate to others down the chain.

So how do we as leaders ensure that these unanticipated alterations are minimized? By teaching and working with our team members on how to communicate the ‘whole story’. Here are some simple tips that I like to follow when relaying messages from one party to another.

Ensure You Understand the Sender’s Meaning

When you are told something, you interpret it in a certain way. One trick that I do when I’m hearing something from someone that requires action on my part (either relaying the message or otherwise) is to repeat back, in my own words, the message that I have been given and ask the ‘teller’ to confirm that my understanding is correct. At that point there is a low probability of salting in extra meaning to your message when you communicate it to others.

Ask Your Recipient to Clarify Their Understanding

When delivering your message to someone else it’s a good tip to ensure that they have understood the message as you have intended. Have the other person tell you what how they have interpreted the message and ensure that they have total clarity in the content of the message. This will help reduce the chance of your message being altered when communicated downstream.

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