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My friend Charlotte and I were in kindergarten. She had invited me to her house to play for the afternoon, and, at some point, asked me a puzzling question, “Would you like peanut butter on a spoon?”

“What’s peanut butter on a spoon?” I asked.

“It’s peanut butter on a spoon,” she stated with a rather baffled expression on her face.

“I know what you said, but I don’t know what that is.”

“It’s peanut butter on a spoon. That’s what it is.”

I simply could not picture what she was talking about. It was out of my experience, so after several go-rounds with her trying to tell me what this unknown “thing” was, I finally asked, “Can you show me?”

“Sure.” Charlotte led me to the kitchen, opened up a cupboard door, reached in and pulled out a can of Shedd’s peanut butter. Then, she opened a drawer, took out a spoon, and dunked it into the peanut butter, coming up with a load of peanut butter on the spoon which she then held out to me, “Peanut butter on a spoon. Want some?”

This was a completely new dining experience for me. In my short life, I had never once been offered peanut butter on a spoon. I understood peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, but simply could not fathom what was meant by the “new” term, “peanut butter on a spoon.” Of course, the moment I saw her take the spoon from the drawer, and dunk it into the peanut butter, I could see where she was going and realized that there was another way to eat peanut butter – straight up – which I thought was simply quite amazing.

Though Charlotte and I were only five or six at the time, what happened with the peanut butter incident is the same thing that happens in the workplace.  Someone issues a directive using commonplace language and assumes that the work will get done. But because the other guy doesn’t understand the intended message, things don’t happen as they should. This leads to upset and conflict or worse.

Leaders don’t allow communication barriers to block the flow of the intended message. They know that a major barrier to communication success is the mistaken belief that you will find meanings in words. Leaders know that meanings are rarely found in the words, but rather in the people who speak them. They know that everyone has a unique code book and the connotation brought to a word based on one’s experiences is far more powerful than a dictionary definition. Therefore, the leader makes sure that team members understand the intent of the message. They don’t assume. They clarify until all “get it.”

Be your own coach; ask yourself the following questions:

  • Am I often misunderstood? Are my instructions sometimes not carried out as I had hoped?
  • Do I assume that people understand what I’ve said or do I ask for feedback to ensure understanding?
  • What is one thing I could do to improve the clarity of my communication?

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