Posted on Jan 27 , 2013

Please Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood

Do you sound like these characters when you are speaking at work?

“..the two took turns throwing out a barrage of questions in response to Alice: “Who do you think you are?”, “Why should we care who you are if you don’t know yourself?”, “What business is it of yours who we think you are?”, “When was the last time you knew who you were?”, “Do you have a subpoena requiring us to answer that question?”, and finally, “Has anyone suggested we should know who you are?”

“Stop!” yelled Alice at the top of her voice…“Are you in the habit of answering a question with a question?” she demanded…

“What do you mean?”

“Exactly!” she exclaimed.”

(excerpt from Leadership in Wonderland by Susan Goldberg and Rebecca Lacy)

These are fictional characters in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and our book, Leadership in Wonderland. Perhaps you have also felt like Alice at your workplace too: the recipient of confusing news. In Leadership in Wonderland, the two demanding answers comprise the legal department for a tea company: they are Mock Turtle and Gryphon. They purposely speak in ellipses, which to them make sense, however not to anyone outside their department. The heroine, Alice, becomes exasperated and wishes they would speak more plainly. “Is this surface talk or is there a hidden meaning in what they are saying?” she wonders. She wishes they were on the same page.

When we wrote, Leadership in Wonderland we were suggesting these legal “expert” characters got great pleasure from speaking in “tongues”, in their case – legal tongues, so that the lay person would not understand them. Therefore, they could be deemed real experts, perhaps even geniuses, and no one would question them. (Although Alice did.)

As Americans, we are known to be plain-speaking and to the point, compared to many cultures. However, that doesn’t mean we are always effective in our communication. Times when our communication can be seen as “speaking in riddles” could include purposefully murky or innocently confusing.

Purposefully murky examples include being uncomfortable with what you are expressing so you use innuendos rather than being straight forward. Or it could be speaking in “codes”, like the legal animals above who are using substitute wording as a metaphor or code-words to impress or self-protect, instead of actual description.

Innocently confusing examples could consist of using in-speak language (terminology and abbreviations that only someone in the field and in that department would normally use). Another illustration is making assumptions people have the same information and level of understanding of a subject that you do. Or, a lack of clarity in expressing thoughts because those thoughts may not yet have come together in your own head. Still another instance could be coming from a different context/position about a subject so that your messages are not fully understood by an audience who does not share your perspective.

If you want to be understood, how can you make sure people listening are getting your message loud and clear? Explain more fully and ASK, “do you understand?” If the circumstances allow it, take it further: ask the person to repeat what you just told them in their own words.

On the flip side, you are the audience and you don’t understand the speaker – ASK. Even if it’s uncomfortable, ask until you are clear about their message. I’ve been there; I’ve been Alice. This can be a particularly uncomfortable position for a young professional who is listening to their boss or some other more senior executive. Why? You don’t want to make waves. Calling attention to yourself is icky. You assume everyone else understood and therefore there must be something wrong with you. Or you don’t want to be thought of as that person who likes to hear themselves talk and asks a lot of questions. So then, question yourself: “how important is it to me to understand what this person is saying? How will that impact me and/or my work?” If it’s truly important, you’ll want to ask.

When all else fails, think about how ridiculous Mock Turtle and Gryphon are, and how brave Alice was in not allowing them to get in the way of her goals. You ARE that brave.

Communication is key to everything. If you want satisfaction in your life and in your career, asking and answering questions will become second nature.

If scheduling a one-time workshop is your answer to leadership training but your young talent is still showing signs of frustration, a workshop is not the answer. You recognize this because you’ve been in their position at one time. If you’d like to create a more complete plan that offers increased productivity, more satisfied team members and increased retention, let’s talk. – Or if you’d like to learn how to lead them better, contact me at