Where there is smoke, is there fire?

On a recent vacation to Bar Harbor, Maine, we rented a car in Portland and drove three hours up to Bar Harbor. As a non-smoker, I am very sensitive to the smell of smoke. Unfortunately, our non-smoking vehicle reeked of cigarettes! Now, I had three problems: 1) The smell was horrible; 2) I didn’t want to be charged for smoking in a non-smoking vehicle when we returned the car three days later; 3) There was no car rental agency near us.

So, I called the agency to register a complaint. I told the customer service representative that the car smelled of smoke and I was very dissatisfied with the rental. She told me to go to the nearest rental office and change the car, since I smelled smoke and it could be dangerous. Wait….now I knew she wasn’t following me! Was it her lack of understanding or my lack of clarity in the message? She was a non-native English speaker, but I don’t think it was just a language issue. I realized that my saying “this car smelled of smoke” could lead the listener to believe the engine was smoking. Although, I had initially said that it smelled of cigarettes, after careful examination of what she was saying, I saw how I led her down the wrong path.

It made me realize that in order to have effective communication and the correct exchange of information, I not only must make sure I explain myself, but I should also listen to the other person’s response to see if he/she is understanding me. In this case, I realized that I needed to clarify further, since she obviously did not understand what I said. It was quite reasonable to assume that if she only heard “the car smelled of smoke,” she might believe there was a car malfunction. She was responding in a way that would be appropriate for her job as a customer service representative. Although the smell of smoke was aggravating to me, I didn’t think my car would explode and I certainly could tolerate the inconvenience.

We need to be good communicators and with that comes sending out a clear message, listening to the other person’s response, and adjusting the message if necessary. It’s not just what we say, and how we say it, it’s how we are heard.

I welcome your stories of miscommunication.