What Are Others Hearing?

It’s not what you say; it’s what people hear. Dr. Frank Luntz

I certainly have word envy about that statement – so succinct, so true and the raison d’etre of The Phone Lady. The words we choose have a huge – and sometimes everlasting – impact on our audience. On the phone this audience is often clients, potential clients, funders, potential employers …

So here’s two stories to consider in relation to your own phone communication.

Story #1 

A few weeks ago I called someone about documents they agreed to send me. We do not know each other well. There had been a delay and my aim was to discover if there was something else I needed to do to move things along.

I experienced that moment of relief and happiness in those initial seconds of her answering the phone. “Hooray,” I thought to myself. “This is going to get done today!”

But then the sound of her voice changed everything – not only for the phone conversation but perhaps for our relationship going forward.

She was, well, miserable. It’s hard for me to choose the right adjectives but they would be something like frustrated, angry, impatient, unwelcoming… . You get the picture.

If she had sounded panicked I would have said, “It sounds like I’ve caught you at an inconvenient time. I’ll call back tomorrow.”

But it wasn’t panic and I struggled a bit. Briefly I thought that what I was hearing was truly about me, my work on the project that was causing this reaction. Instead of backing out of the call, I forged ahead in search of clarity.

In the end it wasn’t about me. It was about her workload and the fact that, at that particular moment, she had no interest in talking to me about our project. She was dismissive although did promise to send me what I needed as soon as possible.

She inadvertently shared with me an aspect of her personality I should never have experienced. It will have an impact on our relationship. It was easily avoided by … letting my message go to voicemail.

She is not alone in allowing this to happen. We’ve all done it. We somehow forget that the person calling us can’t see that we are scrambling to meet a deadline, or are in the midst of a discussion, or have finally grabbed a moment for a quiet cup of tea. We pick up the phone and drench them in our annoyance. It is so unnecessary! And, as my story illustrates, it can have repercussions.

To avoid this situation, follow these steps:

1)When the phone rings, stop what you are doing and acknowledge that you are about to answer the phone and that the person on the other end has no idea what you are doing or experiencing at that moment;

2)As the phone rings a second time, put a smile on your face. Answer the phone with “welcome” in your voice or …

3)Choose not to answer the phone because you can’t reach “welcome”. If you truly can’t put aside frustration or anger or impatience in order to greet your caller, let voicemail take the call, because what the other person hears has an impact that cannot be reversed.

Story #2 

I dedicated several hours last week to outbound calls on behalf of a client. I tend to think like a potential customer when I do this work, acknowledging my reactions to how the phone is answered, how the conversation unfolds.

At one company here’s what happened:

Reception: “ABC Company”

Me: “Hello, may I speak with David Jones please?”

Reception: “He’s not in at the moment. I can give you his email address.”

What? I have called your company and asked to “speak” to someone. You have completely ignored my request. I “hear” that you are not interested in me at all. I “hear” that there is a barrier between you and me. I “hear” the sound of a door closing, with me on the other side.

Being The Phone Lady, after a moment of surprise, I did say “Can I be put through to his voicemail please” and I was able to leave a message. If the receptionist’s attitude is that of the whole company, I’m very doubtful it will be returned. That’s okay because … I’ll keep calling!

Enjoy your PhoneWork everyone!


A cool place to stop during a 14 km hike on Chain of Lakes and BLT trails.
A cool place to stop during a 14 km hike on Chain of Lakes and BLT trails.


Guy's Frenchys is part of every road trip ... although there aren't always purchases.
Guy’s Frenchys is part of every road trip … although there aren’t always purchases.


One of the many magnificent views from Churchill Mansion in Yarmouth. This 5-star bed and breakfast is amazing!
One of the many magnificent views from Churchill Mansion in Yarmouth. This 5-star bed and breakfast is amazing!



0 thoughts on “What Are Others Hearing?”

  1. Mary Jane, I always learn something from your stories and experiences. This time the lesson was how different people “hear” a response. I agree wholeheartedly with the voicemail option in story #1, many times that has saved my caller from an attitude they didn’t deserve!

    But your 2nd story I had to re-read a few times because I didn’t identify the problem. I feel I’m being assisted, or helped, when offered an email option. If I cannot reach the person initially by phone, I find email works quickly and efficiently many times. I feel then that I have initiated with the person and can follow up with a phone call later, perhaps having given them time to consider my proposal or information.

    As someone who answers the phone and fowards to other staff, I often offer the email option, and would never have considered that to be a block to the caller. Thank you for opening my eyes to another possibility – perhaps I’ll be more open to others’ needs in the future.

    • Thanks, Cathy, for this insight. So much of the work I do depends on “conversation” and that can be difficult to inspire by email. But you are right, it is service for a company to offer people options. Then they can choose which mode of communication suits them best. Perhaps that receptionist needed to offer me both email and voice mail.


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