Making Stuff Up – the Key to Miscommunication

I took a class once on communication and the instructor wrote on the board, MSU, saying, “Just because I am writing it in green, it doesn’t mean Michigan State University.” I always remember that. It was about 5 years ago. She was teaching an important communication concept. Stated very elegantly, it means “making stuff up.”

In the business of communication, we have a speaker and a listener, but the speaker does not just speak with words and the listener does not just hear. People speak in many ways. Often we focus on the words used, but research indicates people communicate 55% through their body language, 38% by their tone of voice, and just 7% are the words they use. Because of that we make a lot of stuff up:

“He looks like he’s angry at me. It must be because I was late today.”  Angry look





“She asked me to come to her office later today. I’ll bet I’m going to get fired.”  businesswoman




“The two of them were laughing when I walked past them. It’s probably because I made a mistake in the meeting the other day.”

women laughing



The problem with this is not just that we make stuff up. The real problem is that we believe what we make up and we act on it, which causes a lot of difficulty. If I see you looking angry and I believe you are angry at me, I may become angry with you. I may become hurt. I may stop talking to you. But, you may have had a rock in your shoe or had the worst day of your life or been cut off in traffic or had a fight with your wife. You weren’t angry at me. You just happened to be looking in my direction. And this relationship has been damaged because of what I made up and the actions I took based on my interpretations.

This blog is short. There’s really nothing more to say. I had a client recently and we talked a lot about MSU. She created a process:

Step One: Notice where you are making stuff up. At end of the day, look back and record every instance of interpretation you can recall.
Step Two: Looking back on the places where you made stuff up, notice the types of circumstances where you interpret the most. This will help you ask yourself, “why am I making stuff up on this situation?”
Step Three: In places where you find yourself interpreting, ask questions to get the answers. If you think he’s mad at you, go find out. If you think you’re going to get fired, ask what the meeting is about. Ask questions: “what did you mean when you said that?” “How are you doing today?” or even “You seem angry. Have I done something?”

Step three takes courage, but it’s so very important to break this habit and to learn the truth. The truth will get you the information you need to do your job well and improve all your relationships.

There’s your homework. Let us know how you do.

About the Author

Picture of Cami McLaren

Cami McLaren

is the owner of McLaren Coaching. She has been coaching professionals and leaders since early 2008. She runs Transformative Coaching Essentials, a coach training program that produces first rate Professional Coaches and "Coach-Style Leaders." She coaches individually and works with organizations to improve communication, time management, productivity and ultimately bring greater results.

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