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Who Owns Communication?

Mike Mangino

September 1, 2022

Communicating is hard. It seems as though it would be easy: I say what I mean and you understand it.  Although we may expect communicating with another person to be like communicating with a machine, it’s often more like a game of charades. In charades, I’m given a prompt. For example, “elephant.” My task is to act in a way that allows you to guess the word “elephant,” all without saying the word. This sounds easy, but give it a try with a friend. Did they get it quickly? Well done! Some conversations go like that. Conversations that are heavy with shared understanding and agreed upon facts are most likely to go this way.

Other conversations are more abstract, like trying to guess the word “imitate” in charades. Go ahead, try that with a friend. It’s not as easy. Unlike the word elephant, it’s a more abstract concept. Many of our important conversations at work, and in our personal lives, are like this. They are filled with subtlety. The more abstract, the more emotional and personal our conversations become.

This is because we are imperfect communicators. When I speak, I speak from my own set of experiences. My baggage and current state come along for the ride. When you listen, you hear from your own perspective. Even something as simple as, “You look nice today,” could be interpreted multiple ways. Somebody who comes from a place of confidence might take that as a simple compliment and just respond with, “Thanks!” Another person might look for a deeper meaning and wonder if the person is saying that they don’t normally look nice, but today they do. Either could be a valid interpretation, even if the words are the same. The world of the receiver makes the difference.

Which takes me back to my first question. Who owns communication – the communicator or the receiver? While I’ve heard arguments both ways, I prefer that I’m the one that owns the communication. No, that doesn’t mean I’m going to come to your house to referee a disagreement with your spouse.

If I’m the one on the receiving end, I want to make sure that what I hear matches what the speaker means. I can achieve that by saying something like, “Let me just say that back. I heard …” I don’t do this in every communication, but I try to use this mirroring technique for particularly important conversations or whenever I have an emotional reaction to something I hear. If it’s important, I’m going to make sure I understand.

As the communicator, I’m likely to ask, “Does that make sense?” or other questions to make sure the person I’m talking to understood. When there is a power or rank imbalance, I’m more likely to ask probing questions. Somebody a few levels down in the organization may be less likely to tell me I make no sense (while the odds of me making no sense are roughly constant!)

If you need help seeing this in action, I highly recommend playing a game of Skribbl. Charlotte on my team has started organizing game hour on Fridays and Skribbl has quickly become a favorite. It’s fun to see how some drawings are completely obvious to one person, and not at all to another. That’s a wonderful thing to remember when communicating and at work or in your personal life.


Mike Mangino

About the Author

Mike Mangino is the Chief Technology Officer for TriumphPay where he leads the development and dissemination of advanced technologies that improve and increase business for our customers and TriumphPay. Prior to joining TriumphPay, Mike was the Chief Technology Officer for HubTran where he was responsible for designing and building software to automate back-office payables for the transportation industry and built and managed a team of engineers including software development, DevOps and customer support.