Why Don’t People Say What They Mean?
Home 5 Blogs 5 Why Don’t People Say What They Mean?
Why Don’t People Say What They Mean?
Home 5 Blogs 5 Why Don’t People Say What They Mean?

People do not say what they mean or, it seems, what they are thinking. Why? If we aren’t saying what we mean, then what are the implications for our Customer Experience? Honest communication can not only improve communication, but it can also enhance workplace quality and Customer Experience.

We spoke with a special guest (and friend of mine), Steven Gaffney, author, Certified Speaking Professional™ and founder of the Steven Gaffney Company about this topic on our recent podcast. Gaffney is an expert on teaching organizations to tell the truth and communicate more effectively.

Lorraine asked me a question the other day. It’s a question many of you have been asked as well, in various forms. And after 37 years of marriage, I know how to answer it. The exchange was something like:

“Does my bum look big in this outfit?”


Any other answer would be a disaster, as would even a trace of hesitation before the no.

However, we all know the right answer here. If you don’t have a long-time mate that you have had this exchange with personally, then you at least know how to answer this query from TV and movies. No one wants to have a big bum in any outfit. So, the answer is no, unequivocally.

Now, as all you married people know, I was telling the truth in this instance, but there are times when I don’t. Gaffney says that we do this because of fear. It’s either fear of consequences, fear or hurting someone’s feelings, or even fear of the conversation going the wrong way.

However, Gaffney would say that while this type of thing, being disingenuous, is a problem, the even bigger problem is all the stuff we don’t say. The real problem is not what we say so much as what we leave out.

Take for instance a Customer Service interaction. Let’s say the customer asks your employee for something, something they want. Your employee gives it to them, of course, but leaves out the fact that they can’t have it by the time they specified or that it costs more. Sure, the customer is placated. For now. When the deadline passes or the bill comes due, the customer will be frustrated and disappointed all over again. However, this next time, they might not as easy to placate—or keep.

It Starts with Employees

Gaffney does a lot of work with Marriott. Marriott believes if you treat your customers well, then your employees will treat customers well. It seems obvious, but not every organization does it.

A culture that takes care of employees happens from the top down. What the leadership at an organization does is what their direct reports will do. If leadership creates a safe atmosphere for employees where they are respected, valued, and listened to, then their employees will tell them the truth.

Hard truths have earned their name. Sometimes the truth is difficult to digest. For example, I will never be world-class, deep sea fisherman legend. I will never have my own cable show about fishing. I will never have a best-selling novel about my life on the sea chasing the marlin. It might come as a surprise to some of you, and I am sorry if you thought I would. But the truth is, it won’t.

Okay, so that’s not really a good example because I didn’t really want to be a champion fisherman. I do it for fun. However, if I did want to be a champion, it would be a hard truth. That title will always be “the one that got away” at this point in my life.

So, for demonstration’s sake, let’s pretend I was going for it, quit my global customer experience consultancy, and take the plunge into competitive deep sea sport fishing. Who would be the one to share this hard truth with me? I know some of my readers who would be happy to point it out in the comments of course. However, the only people that would tell me to my face are my family, and by my family, I mean Lorraine.

So why would that work without destroying our relationship? Because we have a relationship developed over nearly four decades that is truthful and trusting. We tell each other the truth when we need to hear it and it’s okay because we know we are in a safe place.

Employees need the same kind of relationship with management, so when the hard truth is revealed, the culture can take it. The culture is made safe by all the honest communication that occurs between an organization’s leadership and the employees.

Gaffney says an effective leader is one that can make employees feel safe to tell the truth. There are three things a leader can do to make employees feel safe:

  1. Tell the truth yourself. My mum used to say, “you get what you give,” and that applies to honesty, too. If you aren’t forthright with your employees, then how can you expect them to be with you? For example, if you are the CEO or a company that is in trouble, you should tell your employees the truth, that you are in trouble, and then offer up your plan to fix it.
  2. Watch the reaction. If you ask for honest feedback, you need to be prepared to hear it and present an appropriate reaction. If you get constructive criticism and then flip out, then the person who told you the truth will learn the lesson that you didn’t mean it (and that they aren’t safe to do so).
  3. Positively reinforce honestly. Part of your appropriate reaction is not flying off the handle at criticism. Another part, however, is providing a positive reaction in response to honesty. An example response could be, “I never knew that’s how I came across. I appreciate you sharing that insight with me.”

Honesty is often difficult. When a person doesn’t feel safe to tell the truth, they won’t do it. Fear will keep us from saying what we mean or what we are thinking, especially at work.

However, strong leadership can entice employees to trust that honesty is valued and appreciated. By being honest, receiving honesty graciously, and positively responding to and rewarding honestly, a leader can evoke this trust from their employees. Employees will then go on to create a safe place for customers to be honest during the Customer Experience.

Gaffney says that these are not easy to do but they are essential to creating an environment where employees feel that they can be honest and stay safe—and employed. When you don’t have these three actions in play, you might have a culture where people say what you want to hear instead of what you need to.

Hear the rest of the conversation on “Why Don’t People Say What They Mean?”on The Intuitive Customer Podcast. These informative podcasts are designed to expand on the psychological ideas behind understanding customer behavior. To listen in, please click here.

Follow Colin Shaw on Twitter @ColinShaw_CX


Silva, Miranda. “How to Find the Perfect Frame for Your Artwork.” 27 July 2016. Web. 3 August 2018 <>.