underlying message

#68 How to Respond to an Underlying Message

A simple statement may carry with it a larger underlying message. If you take all simple statements literally, you will miss important elements of what the other person is communicating.


underlying message


Trying to correctly infer the meaning of the underlying message is less important than noticing that there probably is an underlying message. Once you have the sense there is some additional implied meaning, it is often not that difficult to surface it. This can be accomplished by encouraging the other person to speak further, or by asking probing questions.

Below I provide some examples. Each one consists of a simple statement, followed by a possible underlying message, then my comment, and finally, a suggested response to the simple statement.

Example 1 

Simple statement: “It’s not my problem.”

Possible underlying message: The speaker is often implying that someone else is responsible for an existing relationship dynamic, therefore it is someone else’s responsibility to respond.

My comment: It could well be that someone else is behaving inappropriately; however, if the speaker is being negatively impacted, then she has a problem. The person behaving inappropriately may be doing just fine.

Suggested initial responses to the simple statement: “How are you currently being impacted?” or “Whose problem is it?”


Example 2 

Simple statement: “It’s just a small thing.”

Possible underlying messages: This statement can be an opening phrase to a significant message. The person may feel the need to minimize it because the culture is unable or unwilling to view it as significant. Or, alternatively, the person may want to minimize a large concession that he is asking for. Or, possibly the speaker is not an assertive person and wants to avoid the negative consequences of raising the issue.

My comment: No issue that someone is moved to raise with you is small for him or her.

Suggested initial response to the simple statement: “What seems small can be important. I’m interested in hearing what’s on your mind.”


Example 3 

Simple statement: “I will think about it and get back to you.”

Possible underlying message: This can mean, “I will give you the courtesy of reflecting on it briefly, but I have probably already made up my mind.”

My comment: Since the outcome you were hoping for could be slipping away, you may want to find a way to continue engaging over the issue.

Suggested initial response to the simple statement: “I also will be thinking about our conversation. I would like to schedule a time when we can review how each of our perspectives have shifted as a result of meeting today.”


When it comes to simple statements, it is most important to detect when there might be an underlying message, as opposed to immediately knowing what the message is. As long as you sense something important is not being said, you can ask about it.


Leave a Comment

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

Scroll to Top

Interested in responding to conflict more effectively?


Download my FREE pdf - "Seven Mistakes People Make In Conflict and How To Avoid Them"

You'll also receive my blog "The Conflict Journey"

*Your information will never be shared with any 3rd party.