It’s Not What’s Said, It’s What’s Heard

The essence of cross-cultural communication has more to do with releasing responses than with sending messages. It is more important to release the right response than to send the right message.”

–Edward T. Hall

While working with a client on a project some years back, I shared Edward T. Hall’s quote above with an executive leading the project. He responded with a pithy quote of his own that really nailed the point: “It’s not what’s said, it’s what’s heard.”

Beautiful. So I put it in the title. Lots of meaning packed into those words.

What is “Communication”?

Contrary to popular myth communication doesn’t equal language; language is but one tool of communication. (For more on this see The Danger of Learning a Foreign Language.)

And yet most of us get lulled into believing that if we just string together the right words then communication will naturally follow.

The mind-flip invited by both quotes above, is that the focus should be on the listener not the speaker. 

And the underlying implication is that communication is strategic. It’s all about getting the other person to hear the desired intent behind the message and respond in a certain way.

Anyone who’s ever worked in sales knows this intuitively. When a salesperson walks into a sales presentation her desired response is to get the audience to buy whatever she’s selling. She could have the slickest, flashiest presentation in the world, rattle off a littany of “right” messages, but if she doesn’t get a purchase order out of the deal then she didn’t get her desired response, a failure to communicate in the most tangible sense.

Peddling Planes to China

But let’s shift our focus now in a positive direction. Specifically, let’s examine an actual case study where a savvy U.S. company developed an effective initiative using strategic knowledge about local culture to elicit a desired response.

In 1997 China Southern applied for approval to the U.S. department of transportation to launch a new route from Guangzhou to Los Angeles. The U.S. government, wary of China’s safety record, used the application as an excuse to dig under the fingernails of Chinese airline regulators to make sure they had their ducks in a row prior to issuing approval.

Of course they didn’t.

No surprise China Southern threw a hissy fit, threatening to cancel the airplane orders it placed with Boeing. Imagine that.

Boeing was obviously in a pickle. If the U.S. government didn’t issue approval for the new routes, then they could kiss those China-Southern airplane orders goodbye.

Of course Boeing had no direct connection to the safety woes of the Chinese airlines. But it really wanted to sell those airplanes. So Boeing did what any long-term thinking business would do: it shouldered the burden of helping China raise its regulatory practices and improve airline safety procedures. Just how Boeing approached the challenge echoes the sentiments expressed above: “It’s not what’s said, it’s what’s heard.”

James Fallows explains:

…the U.S. training team was hyper-sensitive about two aspects of this training exercise for their Chinese colleagues. One was to present all their recommendations in terms of meeting international standards for air safety and airline procedures, rather than seeming to say, This is how we do it in the U.S. of A. Presenting the challenge this way made it far more palatable to the Chinese side.” (China Airborne)

In other words, the “desired response” sought by Boeing was for the Chinese to be cooperative. The strategy was to NOT come across as “arrogant Americans,” an approach that would’ve pushed Chinese clients into a defensive stance and make them anything but cooperative. 

According to Fallows, Boeing was so successful in getting their desired response that, “Through the next decade, Chinese commercial aviation, while expanding faster than any other country’s, was statistically among the world’s very safest.” (For more on this topic check out China Airborne by James Fallows.)

The moral of the story is that communication is about selling a message, a point of view, an opinion, a truth, sometimes even a lie. The barometer of success is simple: Are your listeners “buying” your message?

Sometimes we overcomplicate things in the cross-cultural field with our cryptic “academic-speak” and abstract communication models. Sometimes you wonder if we’re talking about people or specimens! So here’s my very simple desired response today: if we all would just put a little more focus on what others might be hearing, rather than on what we think we want to say, pretty sure we’d all get along a little better.

But only if you’re hearing what I’m saying.

Copyright © Tim Sullivan 2013

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