Effective Communication

There’s nothing like music to quickly drive home a memorable communication lesson. This is perfectly illustrated in a story from musician John Prine.

At one of his concerts, a woman asked Prine to play the “Happy Enchilada” song. He knew he’d written a few weird songs in his life, but he sure didn’t remember one about a happy enchilada. So he asked her to tell him how the song went.

Diehard John Prine fans know that what the woman sang was “It’s a happy enchilada and you think you’re going to drown . . .” But the actual lyrics are “It’s half an inch of water and you think you’re going to drown,” from Prine’s song “That’s the Way That the World Goes ‘Round. 

Fortunately, the “Happy Enchilada” request was caught on video.

It’s a funny story, a clever song, and an excellent illustration of how we hear—or mishear—things.

Our mishearing typically isn’t due to a physical ailment. Most of us don’t need an actual hearing problem in order to garble what someone’s saying to us. Often we’re just inattentive listeners. We let our minds wander or we’re overly confident we know what the other person is going to say. (And then we have to backtrack when that person deviates from our internal script.)

It’s amusing with song lyrics, but not so fun when it happens in the board room, on an important call, or during a conflict with a coworker.

According to psychologist Albert Mehrabian’s research from the late 1960s, when we communicate our feelings and attitudes:

  • We express 55% of those emotional messages through body language and facial expressions
  • Our tone expresses another 38% of the meaning
  • And we only communicate 7% of emotions and beliefs through the spoken words themselves

No wonder we get song lyrics so very wrong sometimes. And no wonder it’s easy to misunderstand a friend, coworker, or client, especially when much of our communication these days is electronic.

We plow through email, texts, and postings, hammering out rapid-fire responses.

But if we want to be effective, we need to slow down and consider what we’re really trying to communicate.

After all, sometimes things taste far better when they’re slow-cooked. Like a happy enchilada.

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