SubText Messaging

Recently I had a conversation with a friend. He asked me what I thought about a marketing piece he sent me the day before. After our conversation,which was tedious, we analyzed it. Here is part of the conversation we had, and the same part of the one we didn’t have:

Sam: What did you think of that piece I sent you yesterday?

Subtext: I’m looking for your big picture thoughts

Me: I liked it

Subtext: Uh. Oh. He wanted me to give him comments.

Sam: Well – what did you like about it?

Subtext: Please give me a little more – your big picture comments.

Me: I didn’t read it that carefully – I did think it looked good

Subtext: I feel really badly. He looked at something for me and gave me exactly what I asked for. I should have done more.

Me: [getting defensive] – I didn’t realize you wanted me to provide comments – I can do that. Isn’t it out already?

Subtext: I really would like to fix this – and I still feel badly – maybe he’ll give me another opportunity to make it right.

Sam: Yeah – it’s out already. Never mind.

Subtext: All I wanted was a couple of thoughts, and he’s trying to make a whole project out of it.

After another couple of minutes of this conversation that went nowhere, we stepped back and I asked what he really was asking. I asked him for the subtext. And I told him mine.

We quickly reached an understanding, and avoided further misunderstanding. He didn’t care that I hadn’t really read it. He just wanted a little more of the big picture comments.

I had felt badly that I hadn’t read it and given him deeper comments, and he didn’t even want them.

How much easier it would be if all our conversations were the subtext, rather than the text. If we were simply transparent and said what
we really meant.

When I do role plays in workshops I facilitate, I often will stop the action and ask: "What do you really want to say?" That gets to the subtext.

Instead of texting each other, maybe we should start subtexting.

11 replies
  1. Pierre Cerulus
    Pierre Cerulus says:


    I like your blog contribution….(and now I need to be more specific) as it resonates with some of my experience of giving and receiving feedback on emails, notes, which is done most of the time by replying to an email.  Over and above what you wrote, I found one way to improve the effectiveness of the process by specifying, when you request feedback on a note, email….to start your title with Can you invest x minutes in helping me to improve this note.  This helps the other party to know how much time you would like him or her to invest in this.  You can then as the first line of you text, write something, like "…. I will really like your big picture view on this, [or you process view, or your….].




  2. Andrea Howe
    Andrea Howe says:

    I love this post, Stewart. The title is clever and catchy and the message gets at the heart of what inevitably screws us up when it comes to human-to-human communication — all that chatter in our brains that creates all that noise and interference. Thank you!

  3. peter vajda
    peter vajda says:

    This "private" voice – "public" voice  dynamic occurs in almost every interaction. (When we learn how to be completely focused and present, the dynamic can lessen or disappear altogether).

    The dynamic is based on a "story" we begin to tell ourselves about our self, about the other(s) or both – a story we then take to be true.

    These stories then generate emotions and feelings (most often negative) that keep us from checking out the rest of the story – the other’s piece of our story –  to see what the truth is. Instead, we move automatically to judgments and conclusions about our self and the other, all of which keep us stuck in our story and fearful of testing our assumptions or judgments.

     If we can recognize the moment we are creating our story, i.e., be "conscious" of our story and then and there "open up" and tell the person where we are, then the dance can stop and we can move closer into a place of connection.

    Saying, for example, "I’m curious about something (or a concern, or a worry)  I’m telling myself (or I’m thinking, or experiencing)) and  just want (your take, or to know where you are, or to know what you’re thinking) to check out if it’s true…"  or "I’m not sure I’m correct in my thinking and I want to share wthis with you…" or "Do I have this right or am I missing something…" etc.,  can go a long way to merging the private and public voice into one honest, sincere and self-responsible voice, getting to the heart of the matter instead of spending time and energy mired in the quicksand of a story – a mentally and emotionally exhausting and draining experience.

    What this action requires is that one allow one’s vulnerability, that one could be mistaken, be wrong, or confused and how many of us really want to admit this? It also requires a container of safety and trust where one can feel OK about opening up and disclosing.

    Finally, the process ends with a sincere question such as "Am I wrong?" or "What do you think?"…instead of pointing a(n) (verbal) accusatory finger which often is what we want to do, reactively (unconsciously)  to justify our story…making the other feel "bad" or "wrong" because it’s never "me".

    Sadly, many of us live in the place of the "sub-text" most of our lives, even when alone.

  4. Mark Slatin
    Mark Slatin says:


    Thoughtful post.  Why don’t we just say what we mean?  Sometimes in an effort to be diplomatic or non-confrontational, we fail to share our point.  Then we expect the other person to respond.

    I’ve found men do a better job of saying what they mean because we tend to speak in headlines.  Woman do a better job of listening because the listen (and speak) between the lines; moreso with feelings and emotions.  Of course, that’s a generalization, but the subtlety between genders is a primary cause of discord in marriages.

    Armed with the awareness that people talk in subtext (and haven’t yet read your blog), we can and should listen "between the lines" better.


  5. Chui
    Chui says:


    That was an excellent recovery. Trust happens when one is prepared to look bad in someone’s eyes.

    I remembered there was a software release that customers have been preparing for, but at the last minute, due to quality problems, the CEO pulled the plug on delivery.

    The customers’ immediate response was anger. But the next response was one of relief. Relieved that we would not deliver a substandard product that they would then have to put up with until the next service pack.

    Trust is earned. One pain at a time.

  6. Michael Holt
    Michael Holt says:

    Nice blog post Charlie. 🙂

    It reminded me very much about a series of acting classes I took a few years ago, that was based on something called the ‘Meisner Technique".  We would get into one-on-ones and have rapid fire personal dialogue, with no time whatsoever to frame or consider our response.  We wouldn’t set out to be hurtful, but this would sometimes happen… but the point was utterly ‘honest’ responses… at least unmoderated by any of our normal social considerations. It was very interesting, and certainly discomforting. Some were better than others.  I have to say that I found that, and other acting lessons, far more useful for business and employment, than any other business course I’ve done.

    Drama and acting is presented as ‘acting truthfully in fictitious circumstances’  How good it would be if we could act truthfully in real ones!


    Kind regards,

    Michael Holt

  7. Charlie (Green)
    Charlie (Green) says:

    Again, credit Stewart.

    Michael, as you probably know, Sandy Meisner was one of the most respected acting coaches of modern times, an early prof in the Actor’s Studio.  His concept as I heard it was "live truthfully under imaginary circumstances." 

    He wrote an amazingly readable book on acting called, amazingly, Sanford Meisner on Acting. I’ve read it, and it’s quite affecting, even if you have nothing to do with acting. 

    I think you’re dead on about the importance and applicability of such learning in the business world; would there were more who read, and wrote, such books.


Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. […] of us? What makes a service worth that much to us? On my daily walks with Sam, we have a lot of epiphanies. Here’s one we came up with just before a Nor’Easter looming on the horizon. And no, this […]

  2. […] full blog visit: Trusted Advisor Blog: Subtext Messaging Posted in Blog. Bookmark the permalink. RSS feed for this post. Both comments and trackbacks are […]

  3. […] of us? What makes a service worth that much to us?  On my daily walks with Sam, we have a lot of epiphanies. Here’s one we came up with just before a Nor’Easter looming on the horizon. And no, this […]

Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *