Book Review: What I Really Meant to Say

18 Nov 2022

Book Review: What I Really Meant to Say

A Guest Post by Vasudev Murthy

All of us struggle with communication.

We think we are fluent in a language and wonder why others don’t “get it”. Convinced that we represent our thoughts precisely, and equally convinced that we fully grasp what another person has said, we proceed, constantly fumbling and stumbling and ultimately make a mess of practically everything.

‘I thought you meant” or “But I meant …”  “I wasn’t clear what you meant” or “I was absolutely clear when I said …”

We are a mess. We are a mass of confusion and chaos, navigating time and relationships pretty pathetically. Languages shift shape, freely add vernacular usage, inflections, strange gestures and more. All this is part of our need to get a point across. Nothing is obvious.

In this seminal book, the authors have gone straight to the point and addressed our distressing inability to communicate effectively and make ourselves understood. It helps that both the authors have a background in “applied communication”, in the sense that they have needed to master the subject to make a living. So, they evidently know all the blind spots.

Right away, we read about the ten filters that undermine communication. Even if the intensity varies depending on the homogeneity of the culture, the points are correct. Gender, prejudice, appearance and more act to mutate the message as it travels from the source to the destination.

The titles of the chapters are arresting – “Express Expectations”, “Practice Persuasion” and so on. The chapters are short and sweet and can be grasped in multiple brief reading spells, which is also a good thing, given our current inability to read long texts at a single go.

Book cover
What I Really Meant to Say

Alternating between the two authors, in order to ensure that the message is not overly “American” or “Indian”, the examples are relatable. Every (short) chapter ends with an Actions section, exhorting us to “Start” something and “Stop” something.

For example: “Start asking yourself if all parties are on the same page” or “Stop Holding grudges and let communication flow”. However, examples for each would have helped. Otherwise, the onus is on the reader to imagine a specific scenario and apply the suggestion.

Though I like the style, I felt there were a few slips. Even in the example above, “same page” is not common parlance and may not be understood immediately. And many of the exhortations seem pedantic and prescriptive.  To that extent, another very tough editing round may have helped iron out these blips. Indeed, at least one graphic per chapter would have helped get the point across; there are none, though the chapters are small and easy to read. You may find a few editing oversights; “caboose”, “majorly”, “taking the high road” and such are not common usage or are just plain wrong.

I liked the chapter on “Hold Howevers”. The title needed a second read, but I understood. It’s a significant point that we wish to have our point of view dominate most conversations and therefore do use “but”, “however” and such. Using these words suggests that the other view lacks merit and creates new barriers and reduces the quality of communication.

I certainly intend to take this advice seriously.

In a subsequent chapter, we are told that “interrupting is rude and selfish”. I do agree but I believe that in some cultures speaking over each other is part of the cadence of communication and is not seen as rude. Nevertheless, the point is quite correct.

The chapter on Body Language (“Value the Visual”) was very good and says all the right things. It could have been enhanced by examples of how body language changes across cultures.

Likewise, the advice in the next chapter to quickly skip over exceptions that may derail you from a conversation is good.

A specific chapter or two on written communication might have helped.

The cover design is attractive. It was nice to see a hard-cover version of a book from an India-based publisher.

My overall rating: 4 out of 5.    Excellent topic, thorough, vivid scenarios. Occasional editorial lapses, occasionally preachy and hampered by lack of examples and graphics at the right places. I recommend this book strongly as a single watering hole for best practices in communication. 

Vasudev Murthy is a soul in transit, presently in Bangalore. He has written a number of books, spanning genres such as management, humour, crime, music and yoga. He is a management consultant, violinist and animal rights activist. 

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