“What I am trying to say is …”

My Mom named me Akil, and I’ve spent the last 15 years as a broadcaster interviewing NBA players.

It might surprise you to learn this, but most players don’t, for the most part, particularly enjoy the talking part that comes with the job. But it’s unavoidable, and I’ve witnessed some guys talk themselves out of contracts, and others into into millions. My plan for this Art of the Interview column is to share ideas about communication that I’ve picked up through my work, and the countless hours I’ve spent intently consuming content of all forms.

One of the biggest challenges of communicating is clearly translating your thoughts into words. It’s easy for your intent to get scrambled and “lost in translation”. Even more so when you’re tired, and an unexpected question is sprung on you.

I’m sure you’ve seen this famous Russell Westbook reaction from the OKC locker room.

As a broadcaster, I have to consider the mental and physical state of the person I’ve engaging with. My brain short circuits after minimal exercise, so there’s no way I’d be communicating at my best after playing NBA-level basketball and then have to deal with the media!

But this challenge isn’t unique to professional athletes. Misunderstandings are a regular occurrence in every day life. Let’s explore the mechanics.

I’m sure you’ve found yourself in this situation before: after responding to a question, you immediately regretted the words you chose, or perhaps the listener missed a nuance of what you said. And now you’re left to deal with a misunderstanding, and maybe even some raw emotions. Ugh!

Here are a couple of tips to help keep you out of trouble.

Hack number one: open a statement with “what I am trying to say is…” I find doing this gives me more freedom to play with my words, and creates space for me to make mistakes and correct myself on the fly. It sets the table for the listener, and lets them know that what they’re about to hear might not be fully thought out or perfectly articulated. This increases the likelihood they’ll be more empathetic and compassionate as an audience.

Hack number two is almost the reverse: I like to verify that I’ve properly understood another person’s thoughts by restating them in my own words. Lead with this phrase: “So what you’re trying to say is… ?” Once they agree, I know we’re at least in the same stadium. And if I’ve misunderstood, or the person I’m speaking with with wants to make a clarification, this technique provides the wiggle room to do so in a way that’s less likely to make either of us feel defensive.