I had the opportunity to attend a great presentation from Stephen Young, Founder and Senior Partner of Insight Education Systems. The talk was around the concept of micromessaging, which can be further broken down into MicroInequities and MicroAdvantages. To understand these, Stephen started with the difference between denotation and connotation. Denotation represents the words we use, while the connotation behind those words reveals the true meaning of what is being said. This can involve body language, inflection, tone of voice, and much more. As he pointed out, humans (or humanoids) have been communicating for hundreds of thousands if not millions of years. The written word has only been around for a fraction of that time. Therefore, so much more about how and what we communicate is conveyed by more than just the words. He did an exercise with us where we tried to describe what a dog does when it is happy. While most dog owners know within a fraction of a second the mood of their dog when they walk in the door, trying to convey that recognition process to someone else solely through words is incredibly difficult. In other words, our brains are very well tuned to picking up on things outside of the words in a conversation.

Getting back to the concept of micromessaging, MicroInequities are all of the very small things that we do in a conversation that have negative connotations, such as folding your arms, losing eye contact, giving a “ho-hum” response to the work of some individuals while lavishing excessive praise to others when the outcome of each was similar, etc. In contrast, MicroAdvantages are positive micromessages. The FAQ at the Insight Education Systems page does an even better job of explaining this. A very simple example of MicroInequities was the use of apologies in the workplace (and elsewhere). How often have you heard someone say, “If I offended you, I’m sorry.” Right off the bat, the use of the word “if” makes it a qualitative apology, and not a sincere one. Stephen said, “If you step on someone’s foot, do you say, ‘If that hurt, I’m sorry?’ No, we simply say, ‘I’m sorry.'” He used the example of Michael Nifong, the former attorney in the Duke lacrosse team case. His apology contained this:

To the extent that I made judgments that ultimately proved to be incorrect, I apologize to the three students that were wrongly accused. I also understand that, whenever someone has been wrongly accused, the harm caused by the accusations might not be immediately undone merely by dismissing them.

Analyzing this, we see that the apology immediately starts out with a qualifier. It then uses the terms “that ultimately proved to be incorrect” which connotes “I still think I was right.” His apology is only directed at three students, who he does not name, which excludes the impact to Duke University, the coach who lost his job, the team who lost their season, the families of the players, etc. On top of that, he didn’t even show enough respect to mention the players by name. The gist of this was that apologies should be about the impact, not the intent.

The talk went on to demonstrate the impact of our body language when listening and how it causes speakers to behave differently even when conveying the same or similar information, as well as the differences (and similarities) in different areas of the world. Already today, I have stepped back and adjusted the wording in an email I was composing as a result of this talk. I plan on putting his book on my Amazon wish list and encourage all of you to do the same, and, if you have the chance, hear him speak or bring him to your organization for a workshop.

One Response to “Micromessaging”

  • Carla:

    I was glad to find your blog – and the examples of micromessaging – it will add to a session we’ll be having soon! I really need to attend one of Steven Young’s sessions!! Thanks!

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