Aké Satia is the Chief Vision Officer at Aké Satia, a Human Capital firm in the DC area focused on strengthening organizations by bolstering the intersection of people strategy and business strategy.



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The Backdrop Effect!

Did you hear what I said?
That is not what I meant!!
That is not what I said!!
Where is this coming from?

Sound familiar?

I have a hunch most of us have heard or made one or all of these statements – at some point!
What prompts one to speak like this to another?
Also, why does one get offended at another for misunderstanding them?

The irony is thick!

Isn’t it ironic that we get upset when others misunderstand us?
Certainly, we do not want others to get into our minds. Indeed, we are so opposed to the idea of others getting into our minds that we have minted fancy words to describe such repulsive behaviors. – This includes terms like mind control, brainwashing, and gaslighting! Yet still, we tend to get offended when others do not display the innate ability to perceive our thoughts and discern what is on our minds. And the hurt stems from feeling misunderstood.
Indeed, this is an enigma! And our natural tendencies do not serve us well in such instances.
 Because when one feels misunderstood, one often erects a defensive wall and communicates from a posture of defensiveness that stirs up aggravation, not one of curiosity that enables resolution.
Over the years, I have seen many organizational leaders, employees, and partners fall headfirst into this predicament. Perhaps, you can relate!

Naturally, this led me to ponder why we easily misunderstand each other and what would be a beneficial approach when one feels misunderstood.

Let’s explore!

What did I say?

Have you ever played the telephone game?

You know: the classic icebreaker where several people sit in a line or circle, then one person whispers a phrase to another, and then another until everyone hears and repeats what they heard! In addition to being a great icebreaker, the telephone game is a fascinating experiment in communication! Because after whispering a phrase like “the sky is cloudy” down the line of eight people, by the time the ninth person repeats it, the message morphs into: “I hate broccoli!” Then everyone cracks up and tries to determine where the imaginary telephone line got cut. 😊 Certainly, message distortion is humorous when playing a game. However, message distortion can be disastrous in relationships as it can sever relational bonds. Therefore, it is worth understanding what perpetuates misunderstanding!

From personal reflection, observation, and learning with others, I realized the answer lies in how we process information. Think about it! When you hear a statement, what do you do? Do you delve into your mental depository of words, extract the definition of each word to capture the meanings, and form a conclusion? I bet not! When we hear a string of words, our minds do not scramble through a reservoir of definitions to decipher the meaning. Instead, we filter information (words, tone, body language, etc.) through a preset perspective. And upon this, we derive meaning and form a conclusion of the speaker’s intent. Therefore, to truly understand another, it is vital to know the filters they are using to process information. Because the filters one uses to process information are their perspective.

To better grasp the notion of perspective, let us consider a fun arena – theater!

What is The Backdrop Effect?

In theater, a backdrop is a painted cloth hung across the rear of a stage. Backdrop Definition & Meaning – Merriam-Webster Essentially, it is the background. Most theatergoers assume the backdrop is valuable but don’t give it much thought. For this reason, one would rarely hear a person say: I paid top dollar for seats in the orchestra section of Shakespeare’s Othello because I want the best view of the painted cloth at the rear of the stage. 😊 However, while the average theatergoer might not think much of the backdrop, the Artistic director is mindful of it because she understands its value. – The backdrop is critical in production because, in addition to aesthetic appeal, it directly influences the theatergoer’s perception, specifically, how they feel and interpret the experience. – And this is the Backdrop Effect!
The Backdrop Effect is the product of a range of factors, often subliminal and indirect, that determine one’s perspective and experience.

While The Backdrop Effect may be subtle on stage, its impact off the stage is formidable.

The Backdrop Effect off the Stage.

Like in theatre, a backdrop is always present as we lead our daily lives – even when we don’t notice it. Our backdrops are the perceptions and memories that form the setting through which we view situations and digest experiences. To bring this closer to home, I’ll share a personal story.

Like many of us, I like books because they transport me to a different world and enable me to learn. Recently, I heard of a book, The Earned Life. – A most intriguing title! I might add. 😊 The author of The Earned Life is Marshall Goldsmith. And many of us, myself included, have benefitted professionally from his bestseller, What Got You Here Won’t Get You There. Therefore, I was excited to read his most recent book!

The Backdrop – In Effect!

Desperate to satisfy my curiosity, I grabbed a copy of The Earned Life and quickly began reading it. Delightfully, the text flows harmoniously like the Pacific Ocean as it navigates the reader through letting go and exploring what it means to live with intention. And the delicate balance of theoretical and practical content enables this.

As soon as I turned over the first leaf, I was absorbed! However, I took longer to get through the book than I expected. Because sometimes, I plunged into a moment of deep reflection, followed by a teardrop. My reaction surprised me because the messages in the book are not sad. On the contrary, they are invigorating! Given this, I was intent on understanding my seemingly contradictory reaction.
To make sense of my reaction, I kept staring at the book cover – a unique habit! Fortunately, it provided the answer to my dilemma. I realized that what attracted me most to the book, i.e., the book subtitle, was also the reason for my bewildering reaction. The subtitle: Lose Regret. Choose Fulfillment urges the reader not to dwell on regrets and instead pursue fulfillment. However, by reliving past hurts as mistakes rather than focusing on the lessons learned, I was unintentionally choosing to regret. And my reader experience was defined by my backdrop – i.e., my perceptions and memories, not the words on the page.

Undeniably, The Backdrop Effect plays out in our lives and impacts our interactions with others. Therefore, to effectively communicate with others, it is invaluable to know their backdrop. Importantly, this can unlock the door to many misunderstandings. And to enable this, we must ask the right question.

What did you hear?

Often, when we have a misunderstanding with another, to ensure we are understood, we ask them: What did I say? While we often do so to clarify any misunderstanding, as we know, this approach can be counter-effective because it can appear interrogative and encourage parroting or mindless repetition. A better approach is to ask the question: What did you hear? Asking this question is beneficial because it encourages others to reflect on how the message landed with them and express their feelings. Additionally, it enables us to learn about another’s experiences and what matters to them.

Next time you have a tense conversation personally or professionally, and you feel misunderstood, consider asking the other person: What did you hear? You might be surprised by what you learn!
Friendly Tip: As you ask the question, try not to stare at them with a Freudian glare like you are burrowing for a hidden secret buried in the recesses of their mind because that would be plain creepy! 😊

Have a great week!

For you and to you,



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