Ask VeraSage: Who is responsible for the message?

Eric Fetterolf wrote to VeraSage with an interesting question:

“Group fed up with baffling government jargon” is an article from Yahoo news.

I’ve heard you encourage people to extend our vocabulary. Using broader vocabulary encourages readers and listeners to improve their own vocabulary to achieve understanding. Having stated that, I agree that one should not use language to confuse or obfuscate the intended message.

In your opinion, who is ultimately accountable for the message: the Speaker or the Listener?

Ron: The speaker is always responsible for the message. But that does not mean that the Listener has no responsibility. In fact, listening is probably the most least used skill of all. Most people are awful listeners. But that said, the onus is still on the speaker to get his point across in a way the listener can grasp. Peter Drucker has written about this very topic, I want to say in his The Effective Executive book, but don’t quote me on that, it might be in another one of his books.

Ed: The creation of the message is clearly the sender and it is the responsibility of the sender to develop to the best of one’s ability a message that one believes will be understood by the listener. The listen can choose to ignore the message regardless of what the sender does. It is mutual, but I would say the focus needs to be on the creation of the message by the sender.

What say the rest of you?


  1. I would argue that the answer to this question is more situational than anything else. In a live audience speaking engagement where the understanding level of the listeners is well defined, the speaker should be responsible to speak neither above nor below the expected level of the audience.

    However, in an article written on a blog, the speaker gets more freedom in terms of assumptions about the readers in the audience and can push more responsibility on the part of the reader to educate themselves adequately to engage in the discussion.

  2. Eric Fetterolf says:

    I also asked this question on LinkedIn. Almost every response mirrored Ron and Ed.

    I disagree. Ultimate Accountability for a Message (the transmission of an idea, instruction or feeling from one entity to another) falls entirely upon the Listener.

    The Listener is completely accountable for the reception of the Message. Without reception, can a Message be said to exist (i.e. tree falls in the woods and no one is around to hear, does it make a sound)?

    Mark Horstman of Manager Tools has a great rule: How you feel is YOUR fault. Each person is individually responsible for their own thoughts. Each person is individually responsible for their own interpretations. Each Listener is ultimately accountable to letting the Message into their private thoughts, distorting the Message for their own ends or rejecting the Message entirely.

    No Speaker, no matter how great, can create a message that everyone on the planet will understand completely without distortion or misinterpretation. Indeed, there is ample evidence of Speakers that did not even attempt to create a message that could easily be understood. Nostradamus comes to mind as just one example. And, those Speakers have countless Listeners trying to fathom the Message.

    Consider if the Listener is NOT ultimately accountable. Then no one HAS to listen to anything. Every single person on the planet is exempt from receiving ANY Message. Laws ? ignore them. The Speaker did not communicate the Message sufficiently for you to follow the rules. Leaders ? trash them. The Speaker does not produce a Message that fits you and your needs. Teachers ? please. The list goes on and on. Any Speaker can say anything and the Listener can reject without consequence.

    And yes, I did say without consequence.

    Because IF the Accountability lies with the Speaker, the Listener can assign Liability to the Speaker for any consequences incurred for ?missing? the Message.

  3. Eric,

    I sympathize with your view, but I think you are confusing the accountability of the listener with the responsibility of the speaker getting his message across effectively.

    No doubt, the most effective message in the world can be ignored by the listener, which is why feedback loops are so important.

    For example, VeraSage can win any argument in favor of Value Pricing (or against the billable hour) with impeccable logic and empirical evidence, but most listeners are still rejecting acting on it. There’s not much we can do about that.

    But I will tell you that we constantly refine and reshape our message to make it more effective, and thus gain more adherents. If we simply wrote off those who didn’t change, or who initially disagreed with us, we’d never have made the progress we have.

    This is well established in communication theory, which I suggest you research. Don’t confuse accountability of the listener with the effectiveness of the speaker’s message. After all, if a listener can’t say “no,” then their “yes” is also meaningless.

  4. Eric Fetterolf says:


    We may be in, as Ed likes to say, “Violent agreement”.

    I completely agree with everything you wrote, and, I think it is a great debate point as to why the ultimate Accountability is the Listeners. I agree that the Speaker has great responsibility. But I?m looking for the final, singular, ?the buck stops here? accountability for the Message.

    You created your Message and some Listeners understood it and others didn?t. You further refined your Message many times. You patiently (sometimes) answer the same arguments from different people as they journey down the path your mind has already traversed. All you can do as the Speaker is craft, re-craft, reshape, repeat, polish and paraphrase your Message. There is nothing you can do, nothing, to ensure that the Message is delivered, because delivery requires reception.

    You cannot force the Listener to understand. You cannot force the Listener to even hear. You cannot prevent misinterpretation, deliberate distortion, selective deletion or flat out rejection. Those lie entirely with the Listener.

    Perhaps another example to consider, ?Ignorance of the Law is no excuse for violating the Law?. The Speaker of the Law (Message) does not put the Law (Message) in very easy to understand terms. Heck, the Speaker often makes even finding the Law (Message) a great challenge. But the ultimate Accountability of delivery and understanding resides entirely with you and me, the Listeners.

  5. Eric,

    Fair enough. I agree the listener has ultimate accountability, again because if he can’t say “no,” his “yes” doesn’t matter either.

    I don’t think your legal example, though, is a good analogy. The law (and legislation, a huge difference between those two) are not part of communication, but rather flawed democracy and politics.

    I use the example of doctor and patient. The doctor is responsible for explaining your disease, possible treatments, side effects, risks, etc. If he can’t do that in a way the patient understands (no matter what the patient ultimately decides to do) than he is not an effective doctor, or communicator.

    I think we are saying the same thing, I’m just compartmentalizing more than you.

  6. Ed Kless says:


    You state, “I?m looking for the final, singular, ‘the buck stops here’ accountability for the Message.”

    Just curious, why?

  7. Eric Fetterolf says:


    Great Question. Perhaps the most important question.

    I began with two theories. They are, of course, up for debate as well.

    The First Theory: There cannot be multiple entities with Ultimate Accountability for a process. Ultimate Accountability resides in one entity.

    The obvious facts:
    The Speaker is Ultimately Accountable for the creation of the Message
    The Listener is Ultimately Accountable for the reception of the Message.

    The Second Theory: A Message only exists when an exchange, a connection, between the Speaker and Listener exists.

    This can be stated another way: All communication is simply persuasion, an attempt to take ideas and feelings from the Speakers mind to the Listeners mind. In order to accomplish that, a connection and exchange must be made. Without that connection and exchange, a Message does not exist.

    This is the source of the original question: Which singular entity is Ultimately Accountable for the Message?

    I trying to decide for myself if I am ultimately accountable for the Messages I receive, the Messages I reject, the Messages I distort and the Messages I ignore. If I as the Listener am not Ultimately Accountable, it really takes quite a burden off me.

  8. Eric Fetterolf says:

    You were gracious enough to post my question on listening and speaking. I also asked that question on LinkedIn. The overwhelming majority held to the claim that the Speaker is accountable and the Listener is not. The following is my last clarification to that question:

    I?ve heard it said that all communication is simply a form of persuasion. No communication exists without an attempt to get an idea or feeling from one mind to another. There is usually an end behavior goal behind that transfer. If the idea already existed in the forefront of the Listener’s mind, no communication is necessary.

    I think most people answering agree on the following:

    The Creation of the Message is the Speakers responsibility. The Speaker is ultimately Accountable for this part of the process.

    The Reception of the Message is the Listeners responsibility. The Listener is ultimately Accountable for this part of the process.

    Where I wanted to focus was on the connection and exchange between Speaker and Listener. Who is Accountable for establishing the connection and clean exchange of the information?

    I admit, I am operating on a theory that Accountability can only be found in one entity. If two entities are Accountable, then nobody is Accountable.

    Examples to think of:
    – A Politian speaks, is the Politian accountable for the connection and exchange or are we accountable? If the Politian is accountable, and uses the media to facilitate the connection and exchange, is there a transference of accountability?
    – ?Ignorance of the Law is no excuse? seems to clearly establish that the Accountability of the connection, exchange and understanding resides in the Listener. Would you agree with that assessment? Do you agree with that premise?
    – You attend a seminar or workshops for training under duress. The Message(s) have been created and are being transferred. Where does the connection accountability lie?

    A connection and exchange is required to move the Message from the Speaker to the Listener. Where does the Accountability for the connection and exchange reside?

  9. Eric, I think I know where the trouble lies now.

    You are asking who is accountable, as if accountability can be imposed on one party or another. Accountibility is something that is chosen by the individual, it cannot be imposed by another.

    This is the center of much of Peter Block’s work. In fact, he has come to the conclusion (I am not fully with him on this) that accountibility and freedom are the same thing.

    In this sense you are trying to establish something that is not possible. It is like asking which is responsible for water the hydrogen or the oxygen.

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