How to say what you mean

How to say what you mean

You don't have to zip your lip if you're having trouble communicating. Instead tune in to your attention level, body language, tone level, and these other tips.
Mar 01, 2010

In your daily interactions with clients and co-workers, there might be a big difference between what you say and what people hear. This type of miscommunication often results in hurt feelings, anger, and embarrassment. Even worse, a misunderstanding could end up negatively affecting the pets visiting your veterinary hospital.

Michelle Hainer
"What we don't realize in this go-go-go world is how our words impact people," says communications expert Nance Guilmartin, author of Healing Conversations: What to Say When You Don't Know What to Say and The Power of Pause. To ensure you're making the impact you intend, follow these five tips from Guilmartin.

1. Start by listening. "Most people think they know how to listen, but listening isn't just waiting to speak," Guilmartin says. Instead of finishing clients' sentences, stop and let them wrap up before you respond. This ensures you're replying to the statement they really made rather than what you anticipated they'd say. When you're talking to clients—and colleagues—also avoid jumping in with your own tale of woe, such as, "Let me tell you about how sick my dog was..." While you can build bonds by sharing a few personal details, simply trumping other people's comments rarely gets any point across except that you haven't been paying attention to the speaker's needs.

2. Rely on the rephrase. Because other people jumble their words too, put their statements into your own words. This helps open the lines of communication. For example, if clients rant about their long wait time, more than likely they're worried about being late for another appointment or picking up their kids on time from soccer practice. "Pausing to say, 'Let me see if I understand what you're saying,' or 'Would it help if...' really validates the person," Guilmartin says. This ensures that you're responding to the real issue—and it makes people less likely to bite your head off.

3. Temper your comments. Everyone has bad days, and a snippy response from a veterinary technician, for example, can certainly leave you seething. But remind yourself that the technician might have come directly from the back where she was dealing with an equipment malfunction or unruly pet and is simply taking her frustration out on you. "If someone treats you rudely, say, 'So and So isn't normally that way. I don't mean to pry, but is there something going on that I should be aware of?'" Guilmartin says.

Unless you and your fellow team members start wearing signs to express how you're feeling (Do yourself a favor and stay away today!), you can't know for sure why people respond the way they do. But what you can do is control your own reactions. Rather than retort back abruptly, take a second to plan your words. Then speak in a medium tone and speed so as not to convey any anger. Many times, people have trouble truly hearing comments twinged with irritation because they're too busy reacting to the perceived ill will.

4. Avoid the phrase at least. "At least Buddy lived a good long life." "At least that bite didn't break the skin." "At least you don't have to answer the phones every day." You get the picture. At the very least, the phrase at least completely discounts a person's feelings, Guilmartin says. While you're likely attempting to comfort people or minimize their fears, doing so in this way is akin to telling someone to suck it up. When you find yourself wanting to utter the phrase, pause instead, Guilmartin says. The brief silence is a way to acknowledge the person's loss or difficulty. Then you can respond with statements that begin with, "I can't imagine" or "It must be hard." This small tweak in your words will prevent people from thinking you're brushing them aside and allow them to see that you're really trying to be supportive.

5. Watch your body language. Your posture, expressions, and movements convey as much meaning as your words. For example, if you cross your arms while in conversation, people might assume you're upset even though you're just trying to stay warm in the chilly office. If you frown in simple concentration, people might be turned off by what you're saying. To avoid these misinterpretations, clue in your colleagues about a particular habit, Guilmartin says. Say something like, "When I'm standing a lot, I cross my arms. That's just me being comfortable. I'm not annoyed with you." And when all else fails, remind people that you're just trying to make sure you say what you mean.

Michelle Hainer is a freelance writer living in New York City. Please send questions and comments to