What did (s)he mean by that?

The most pointless and important question in the world

”What did (s)he mean by that?”

There you have it. The most pointless and important question in the world. Both at the same time.


We’ve all been there. Every week we talk to people or read someone’s e-mail and don’t quite understand what they’re getting at. We think to ourselves ”What did they mean when they said that?”. This could just as easily happen between two complete strangers as it could between two spouses. You may misinterpret what the other person is saying or simply not understand them at all.

For example, a stranger may tell you they have a colourful past. The natural reaction is to ask what they meant. Or a wife may ask her husband how she looks in a dress. No matter what the answer, the wife will always respond with The Question 🙂

How many times do you find yourself asking this question? Why do you think that happens?

As a professional writer I find this question intriguing. On one hand, it’s a pointless question: if you have to ask that when reading my blogs for example, you will likely never get an answer. Not that I wouldn’t let you know if you asked, but you might not take the time to do it. The question will remain unanswered, which makes it pointless.

On the other hand it’s the most important question: it’s something I ask myself repeatedly when writing – what do I mean by this sentence, what do I mean by this word. Doing that I make sure I’m getting my point through to you.

So what? We’re not all writers.

As I said, we’ve all been there. It doesn’t just concern us writers, it concerns each and everyone of us. When someone else is talking, we may get hung up on details: a choice of words or the expression on someone’s face when they tell us something. Why did they choose those when communicating with us?

When we are the communicator ourselves, the question becomes even more important. Am I being understood the way I want to be? Is what I said really what I wanted to say? By asking the question ourselves, the other person doesn’t have to.

Granted, at times getting hung up on things is overanalyzing. Sometimes there really is something to get hung up on. Either way, not bothering to clarify things can lead to serious miscommunication later.

The worst part of it all is when instead of asking, we start thinking of all the different possibilities and outcomes for ”what (s)he meant”. This leads to a whole lot of speculation. We’ll spend hours wondering what the hell we should do about all the possibilities and outcomes, and we’ll still be none the wiser. We still don’t know the truth. 

Imagine the time and energy we’d save if we’d just ask.

The power of openness

I understand that it’s difficult for people sometimes to admit their uncertainty. Maybe they feel they’ll seem stupid if they ask questions. But let’s face it. No matter how hard we try to reason ourselves into ”what (s)he meant by that”, we’ll never be able to read their mind. Nor can they read ours.

That is why I believe in the power of openness. I believe that no matter how smart you are, no matter how well you think you know people, it will always be faster and simpler to just ask the question. It will save you a lot of grief, and we don’t have to spend time wondering.

So next time you’re not sure what was meant, just blurt out the question! Apply this to your customer relationships and personal relationships – and if you’re in sales or marketing, apply this in your thinking. Admitting that you weren’t clear on something doesn’t make you look stupid. Hiding behind the miscommunication does.