There is a special encrypted language you can encounter when a person wants to tell you something but they have to be careful about what they are saying. While their attempts at diplomacy may be laced with the intent to protect others or themselves, the end result is that it is sometimes difficult to decode the message, regardless your cognitive ability, and as a result misunderstandings can occur.

Here are examples of how communication can be so unclear that it is difficult to decode:

  • Sometimes the speaker substitutes names with vague, qualifying terms like "the person you just met the otherday" in an attempt to avoid calling names.  What if you met a number of people lately?
  • Then there are others who use metaphors that mean something to them but they don't mean anything or thesame thing to you.
  • Some persons find it difficult to articulate what they are thinking and feeling.
  • Then there are people who use confusing language to obscure what they are saying from others but they only serve to confuse you.
  • Finally, there are office politicians who deliberately use half-truths to influence situations.

Reading between the lines requires understanding what is implied, and not stated. Here are a few tips to help you to decipher what is really going on:

It is important to learn to decipher both verbal and non-verbal language with equal competence.  You can do this by observing the communicator's body language and asking yourself if it is aligned with what they are saying.  For example, is the communicator’s body language defensive while his words appear to be calm? Remember, non-verbal language accounts for more than 90% of communication.

We all have different backgrounds so we filter information in our unique ways. In light of this, reading between the lines requires skillful questioning to test your understanding without causing the speaker to feel vulnerable enough to cease communicating.

And finally, use what you know about a person to determine the meaning of their response.  What are their time tested values?  What have you observed about their patterns? This can provide you with useful insights.

As you probably have already noticed, the previous suggestions are quick fixes. In the examples provided, coworkers can be less direct when trust is low and they perceive the possibility that an authentic response can backfire.  To reverse this dynamic, a trust building strategy needs to be developed and implemented before an authentic conversation can occur.

As long as trust is low within your team, it is useful for you to become proficient at reading between the lines as you build trust. Reading between the lines can help you avoid making errors because when you detect something that seems incongruent you can investigate before making the final call.  The foundational skills required for reading between the lines are the abilities to perceive, care about the thoughts and needs of others, to welcome divergent views, and to connect.

Yvette Bethel is CEO of Organizational Soul, an Organizational Effectiveness Consulting and Leadership Development company. She is a Consultant, Trainer, Speaker, Facilitator, Executive Coach, Author, and Emotional Intelligence Practitioner.  If you are interested Yvette's ideas on other leadership topics you can sign up for her newsletter at or you can listen to her podcast at Evolve Podcast.