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Monday Mom challenge: Don’t shoot the messenger

Jen Klein is a New England-based technical writer and mother of three. When she isn't asking her kids to stop bickering, "caramelizing" the dinner or actively ignoring the dust bunnies under the couch, she enjoys knitting, gardening, pho...

Listen beyond words

We’ve all heard the phrase, “Don’t shoot the messenger,” right? And pretty much know how to apply it to criticism or bad news situations. But does it apply in other situations? Do you dismiss words -- even kind ones -- because of who says it? And what if the manner of communication really is the issue?


Learning to communicate -- and communicate well -- is an art. Some people seem to be naturally skilled at it, some are works in progress and some topics are just tough to communicate no matter what! While we can thank Shakespeare for giving us a short phrase of advice to describe the difference between content and delivery, we could use a little extra practice at separating the two, no matter whether the message is "good" or "bad."

Look beyond presentation

Yes, as we tell our kids, presentation matters -- the message should be presented well. However, learning to look beyond presentation or the intent of the presentation is a critical life skill. If we only ever took things at face value, especially when presented neatly and tied with a bow, we'd likely never get to the heart of important matters. It's the "reading between the lines" our high school English teachers were working to teach us.

Not just critical words

This is not just about bad news or criticism. Even good things can be inappropriately dismissed because of who is saying it or how. That pretty neighbor may talk like a "Valley Girl," look like a Barbie doll and you may dismiss what she's saying about what's going on at the local school board meetings -- but try listening beyond the "ums" and the "likes." Even pretty women can be smart and have something to say despite verbal tics. There's a reason she earned a masters degree in education with high honors.

Sometimes the messenger is the issue

There are times, however, when who delivers a message and how is part of the issue -- it's part of the message. Those are the times when dismissing the message as well as the messenger is the appropriate thing to do. There are those who take a bit of glee in delivering a negative message -- criticism for criticism's sake. Perhaps it's a frenemy telling you something irrelevant and mean, or a bare acquaintance delivering an item of gossip that's truly none of your business. In those situations, while "shooting" the messenger wouldn't actually be appropriate, you can dismiss both the message and the messenger.

Becoming a good communicator is a lifetime process and it's more than how one delivers a message. It's how you discern what you hear as well. While we're teaching our kids about being good communicators, about discerning message and messenger, it's a good time to review it for ourselves, too. Don't shoot the messenger -- and get better at delivering the message, too.

More on effective communication

Monday Mom challenge: Improve your communication skills
Effective face-to-face communication
The active role of silence

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