NLP Presuppositions (8): The “Meaning” of Communication is the Response You Get

Or, how to avoid “doing a Ratner”.

ratner crap

Have you ever paid someone a compliment, and they’ve taken it as a put-down? Have you ever said something intended to make someone laugh, and they’ve taken it as a hurtful comment? Have you ever tried to make that kind of situation better, and just found that you’re just digging yourself deeper?

Let’s take a riches-to-rags example. In 1991 Gerald Ratner was a successful businessman who had transformed his family’s jewellery business from a rather stuffy, old fashioned retailer to a very successful chain with a branch on nearly every high street. He shocked the jewellery industry by putting up fluorescent orange posters advertising cut-price bargains and 3 for 2 offers. The shops were kind of tacky but the public loved it, and the chain expanded rapidly.

Then everything changed. As a high-profile retail wizard, he was invited to give a speech at the Institute of Directors. He had a standard speech that he’d used for five years or so, with some jokes that always went down well, like this one:

“We also do cut-glass sherry decanters complete with six glasses on a silver-plated tray that your butler can serve you drinks on, all for 4.95. People say, “How can you sell this for such a low price?”, I say, “because it’s total crap”.

and… “We even sell a pair of gold earrings for under 1, which is cheaper than a prawn sandwich from Marks & Spencer. But I have to say that the sandwich will probably last longer than the earrings.”

As usual, this went down fine with his audience – fellow businessmen. But the next day, the tabloid press were accusing him of insulting his customers. “You 22 carat gold mugs” was the Daily Mirror’s headline.

What was intended as a bit of self-deprecating fun, and was taken that way by his intended audience of high-powered business owners, was taken in quite another way by his customers – at that time struggling with job losses, house repossessions, and just making ends meet in the recession of the early 90s. They took it personally. To them, here was this fat cat worth 350 million, with a yacht, a private plane, and lots of houses, mocking the people who had put him there. Gerald’s protestations that it was a private function that he didn’t expect to be reported, and the remarks were not intended to be taken seriously, made him look even more out of touch.

The response of his customers was about what you would expect from someone who had been mocked. They stopped buying Ratners jewellery. The value of the company plummeted by around 500 million and it very nearly collapsed. He resigned the following year, and the company changed its name to the Signet Group.

What was going on there? Well, we know about mental filters, deletion, distortion, and generalisation. When you say something, or write an email, to another person, your words are being interpreted through their mental filters. They are also judging your non-verbal communication – the tone of your voice, your facial expression, and body language – through those same filters. Of course, with emails, you don’t have body language or voice tone, so the reader has to fill in that missing information as best they can from their own map of the world – which is why people can frequently take emails the wrong way.

By the time the other person is aware of your communication, it’s already been through their filters. So to them, their interpretation of your message *is* the message itself.

Sometimes, if your maps of the world are fairly similar, the message they receive is pretty close to the message you thought you were sending. The information from their map that they use to fill in the deletions in the message is pretty much the same as the information that you were leaving out, and so on.

If you’re working from diverging maps, the message they receive can be very different from the one you thought you were sending. And since you are communicating with them with some sort of desired response in mind, it’s the message as they receive it that’s important.

Since you don’t know for sure what their filters are, the only way you can know if your message has been received as sent is to notice what their response is. If their response is not what you expected from the message you sent, that means it’s been received differently, and you’ve communicated something other than what you intended.

Imagine the classic Englishman abroad, trying to ask directions from a passer by who doesn’t speak English. The time-honoured tactic of repeating the same question, but louder, while thinking “Why can’t this person speak English?” isn’t going to work. Learning a few words of the local language, or trying a bit of sign language, will probably get you a lot further.

As the communicator, it’s your responsibility to change how you are sending the message – whether that’s a change in wording, voice tone, body language, or the medium you send it by, until you get the response that tells you your message has been received as sent.

As a listener or a recipient of communication, you will be less likely to jump to conclusions when you remember that what you are hearing or reading is your filtered interpretation of the message. This is particularly worth remembering with email communications, where the body language and voice tone that normally supply the emotional context to make sense of the message are not available, and you’ve only got the words to go on.

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© 2011, Andy Smith. All rights reserved.

1 comment

  1. Clay Nugent (earring making stylist)

    I am saddened with Gerald Ratner's story. He was already in the midst of success but because of those unintended meaning of his words that received by his customers differently, all of his efforts were wasted and his business went down. I think it was so difficult for him to cope with this kind of this great problem. I hope he's okay right now. Thank you for posting this blog. I liked reading it really. Such a big lesson for those people who were not conscious of the words they use when delivering messages and for people that interpret differently the right message they received.

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