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Fieldstone Alliance: Tools You Can Use e-newsletter
Tools You Can Use

Communicating Clearly:
It's Not What You Say, It's How Others Hear You

The Community Leadership Handbook

Three Common Barriers to Creating Shared Meaning
An Interactive Model of Communication
    Interpersonal communication model
    Understanding your filters, experiences, personality, and roles
Improve Your Speaking Skills
    Be specific
    Take responsibility
    Be adaptable
    Check for accuracy
Listen for Understanding
    Be attentive
    Motivate the speaker
    Provide clarification
Don't Listen for Agreement
Key Points to Remember

Where to Learn More


From Becky Andrews, Marketing Manager, Fieldstone Alliance:

EFFECTIVE LEADERS pay attention to not only what gets done but also how it gets done. Developing and maintaining long-term relationships that allow us to work together in spite of our differences is just as important as money in the bank.

We all know that relationships require trust. And trust requires communication. If you can’t communicate successfully with others, then you won’t work successfully with them. Communication isn’t just a matter of sending and receiving messages. Instead, communication creates a common understanding of those messages, or shared meaning.

Pull out quote: The biggest danger in communication is assuming that it has taken place—that shared meaning has already been created.Shared meaning happens when the “picture in my head is the same as the picture in your head”—and when we each know how the other feels about that picture. But getting to shared meaning isn’t always easy or obvious. This issue of Tools gives you a process for creating shared meaning that you can use in all your work—including diagnosing a current problem speaking with or listening to a specific person. The information is from pages 82-89 of The Community Leadership Handbook by Jim Krile, based on the work of the Blandin Foundation.

Three Common Barriers to Creating Shared Meaning
The first step in creating shared meaning is to recognize that everyone comes to a conversation with tendencies to assign certain meanings to messages—and those tendencies are not necessarily the same for everyone. While there are many challenges to creating shared meaning, these three are common and deserve special attention:

  1. We assume that sending messages equals sharing meaning. Many times we think we’ve created shared meaning by sending someone a written message, leaving a voice message, or speaking directly to them. Later on it becomes obvious that there was little or no shared meaning. In response, we say: “But I sent you a memo.” “Didn’t you get my voice message?” I told you at the end of the last meeting!” Effective communicators do not automatically assume that shared meaning exists. They check with the other person to see what meaning the message has for them.
  2. We forget that meanings are held in people, not in words. This is not to say that you can throw your dictionary away. But it does serve as a reminder that words can mean different things to different people.
  3. Communication is not about the speaker’s intended message—it is about what the listener perceives. It is not what the speaker says that gives meaning to the speaker’s words; it’s what the listener hears. For example, an executive director may ask his program manager, “Why do we have this procedure?” because he wants to do it correctly. But in these words, the program director may perceive disapproval of the procedure, and she could feel hurt.

An Interactive Model of Communication
Use the following model to be more aware of how people arrive at meaning, and to be more intentional about that process.

Interpersonal Communication Model

Interpersonal Communication Model diagram

Key terms

The form of communication—verbal (words) or nonverbal (body language, gestures, tone of voice).


The tendencies that guide us as we create meaning in the messages we send. Our wellsprings lead us to encode our messages in certain ways as we speak or write.


The tendencies that guide us as we assign meaning to the messages we receive. Our filters lead us to decode messages in certain ways as we observe, listen, or read.


The deeply held beliefs we have about the way things should be, about what is right and what is wrong.


Our past, which comes to us through our family, gender, ethnic background, work, travel, and education. In this figure, the term experiences refers to the ways that our personal history gives meaning to what we say and hear.


Our psychological makeup, especially as it relates to creating meaning. For example, some of us create meaning through details. We provide a great deal of detail in our messages and expect the same in messages from others. On the other hand, some of us find meaning in general patterns and create our messages accordingly.


The social “hats” that we wear in different circumstances—for example, boss, mayor, teacher, parent, or concerned citizen. People may hear messages about education differently depending on whether they are listening in their role as a parent, as a taxpayer, as a teacher, or as a school board member.

Understanding your filters, experiences, personality, and roles
It is not easy to gain insight into how you speak and listen. Asking the following questions can help you take the model of communication and apply it to your own experience.

Regarding values: What are some of your values and how do they affect the way you listen to or speak about certain topics?

Regarding experiences: What key life experiences shaped the way you listen and the way you speak? Are there negative or positive experiences you try to avoid or re-create when communicating?

Regarding personality: What are some aspects of your personality that affect the way you create meaning? Do you see the world in black and white or shades of gray? Are you more task-oriented (concerned about getting things done) or people-oriented (concerned about what others think and feel)? Do you like to think out loud when trying to create shared meaning, or do you need some time to think things through before you speak?

Regarding roles: What roles are you used to playing? What “hats” are you wearing when you try to create shared meaning? What impact do those roles have on the ways you send your messages and receive messages from others?

Effective interpersonal communication is a bit like a dance—a step-by-step process in which two partners continually adjust to each other. Given the nature of this dance, what are some of the basic steps that make you a good partner and help to build social capital? Two things are needed: speaking skills and listening skills.

Improve Your Speaking Skills
Success at creating shared meaning means being intentional about the ways that you frame your messages. Take into account your own wellsprings and filters as well as those of your listener. Get feedback on how your message is received and adjust accordingly. Use the following suggestions as a checklist for what to remember.

Be specific

  • Be concrete: find words that give the most precise description.
  • Be complete: answer key questions that people might ask about your message, such as Who? What? Why? Where? When?
  • Be concise: avoid distracting clutter and tangents. Stick to the point. Do not litter your message with repetitive words such as “you know,” “well,” “OK?” and “uhhh.”

Take responsibility

  • Be clear about what you think or feel by saying, “I think” or “I believe.” Beware of expressing your concerns with statements such as “You have a problem” or “This group has a problem.” Statements like these are usually heard as judgmental, accusatory, or demanding. “I” invites dialogue; “you” invites rebuttal.
  • Unless people ask you to speak for them, avoid phrases such as “We all know . . .” If you have a concern, say something like: “I don’t know about anybody else, but I think there is a problem with . . .”

Be adaptable

  • Be aware of words that may have several meanings in a given situation. For instance, you might say, “We will all have to sacrifice something for this issue,” referring to a task that will use up time and energy. Some of your listeners could be offended by this comment, however, because for them, sacrifice means backing away from strongly held values. Remember that meaning is in people, not in words, and adapt your messages to the perception of your listeners.
  • Acknowledge your wellsprings and filters. Which habits in the way you send and receive messages will be activated in different situations? How will your messages change as a result? If your wellsprings and filters are having a major impact, say so. For example: “As business owner, I...” “Having gone through this myself, I...” “This is really important to me because one of my core values is...”
  • Adjust for the receiver’s possible wellsprings and filters based on gender, age, occupation, and cultural background.

Check for accuracy

  • Ask for feedback about how your message was heard. Ask questions such as, “What did you understand me to say?” “Does this make sense to you?” “Is there anything that is not clear to you?”
  • If feedback shows that your message was not heard, keep reframing it until you are sure it’s understood.
  • Remember, the biggest danger in communication is assuming that it has taken place—that shared meaning has already been created.

Listen for Understanding
Listening plays a powerful role in creating shared meaning. And as noted earlier, what gives meaning to a message is the listener’s perceptions—not the speaker’s intentions. The listener must be able to “read” or “decode” the speaker’s message accurately. An active listener can be a skilled dance partner for the speaker, actively creating clarity in the speaker’s message. Following is a checklist for effective listening.

Be attentive

  • Concentrate on the speaker. Stay focused on what people say and how they say it.
  • Demonstrate interest nonverbally. Make eye contact in ways that are culturally appropriate. Lean forward and focus on the speaker. Do not check your watch, sort your mail, or look for something in your pockets while you listen.

Motivate the speaker

  • Ask open-ended or clarifying questions. Avoid questions that can be answered yes or no. Ask questions such as, “What do you think?” “What are your feelings?” “Could you give me more detail?” “Could you describe for me...?”
  • Avoid interruptions. Wait your turn to respond to the speaker, and respect the other person’s right to speak. Do not insert your story in the middle of someone else’s. If you feel an overwhelming urge to interrupt, count to ten before you speak.

Provide clarification

  • Paraphrase. Describe what you heard without evaluating or interpreting the message.
  • Summarize: “So the key points that I heard you make are...”

Don’t Listen for Agreement
People often try to create shared meaning in situations where there is disagreement and argument. In these situations, the task of creating shared meaning becomes more difficult.

This happens, in part, because those involved have a tendency to listen for agreement rather than for understanding. That is, we are prone to listen only for things that we agree (or disagree) with. We become cautious about how active we seem to be listening, because we do not want it to be taken as a sign that we agree with everything a speaker says. However, listening for agreement (or lack of agreement) rather than understanding increases the likelihood of conflict, and diminishes shared meaning.

To listen for understanding

  • Check the other person’s meanings before determining agreement or disagreement. Many potential conflicts will never develop as you discover that your differences lie in your use of language, rather than in your values or opinions.
  • Remember that you can listen to ideas and feelings that you don’t agree with. The act of listening is not the same as the act of agreement. Listening demands an open mind, not agreement. When you hear someone out, even though you disagree, it creates greater shared meaning as you come to understand what shaped that person’s point of view.
  • Understanding (shared meaning) does not ensure harmony. You may understand someone else’s position and why they think or feel that way, and still disagree. But now you disagree based on a real understanding, rather than a lack of understanding or lack of shared meaning.
  • The heart of listening for understanding is to listen to learn, not to judge the speaker or to force people to adopt the same viewpoints.
  • The skills of paying attention, motivating the speaker, and clarifying messages are especially important in listening for understanding.

Key Points to Remember
Complete shared meaning is not always possible—and not always necessary. You may never totally understand the depth of another’s reaction. All you need is enough understanding to realize what they want and why it is important to them.

An effective communicator is someone whose messages are “heard” the way they were intended. An effective communicator is anyone who succeeds at creating shared meaning. To this end, here are key points to remember:

  • Communication is an interactive process in which the people constantly move back and forth between the role of speaker and the role of listener
  • The speaker’s job in this process is to adjust for the listener’s wellsprings and filters and to check for accuracy
  • The listener’s job is to adjust for the speaker’s wellsprings and filters and to actively listen for understanding
  • The basic building block of good communication is the assumption that every person is unique and of value

Where to Learn More

Fieldstone Alliance
Free articles:
"Three Keys to Being an Effective Community Leader"

The Fieldstone Alliance Nonprofit Guide to Developing Effective Teams
Message Matters: Succeeding at the Crossroads of Mission and Market

Resolving Conflict in Nonprofit Organizations

Consulting services:
Fieldstone Alliance consulting services include assessment, strategy development, collaboration, cultural competence, and comprehensive community initiatives. For more information, please contact Sandy Jacobsen at 651.556.4510 or

Blandin Foundation
The information in this newsletter and in The Community Leadership Handbook is based on the Blandin Foundation's Community Leadership Program.

All the best,

Becky Andrews
Fieldstone Alliance

August 20, 2008


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