Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Nine Reasons Why It’s So Easy to Be Misunderstood

How many times have you thought you were communicating clearly, only to discover that your words were taken in a way you never could have imagined? And likely, more negatively (though at times more positively, too). Here are eight varying explanations as to why the communication that, however carefully, you delivered—whether orally or in writing—might be quite different from the communication actually received. And doubtless, there are other causes (and I warmly invite readers to add them to the Comments section at the end):
1. The other person’s mind wandered. Either they weren’t tuned into you or, without consciously having planned it, their brains temporarily went offline. Or they may have been preoccupied with other matters, and so weren't mentally available. Nonetheless, you may need to take some responsibility here. For it’s also possible that you started talking without making sure you’d secured their attention. Remember, typically our minds are always occupied with something. It’s only fair then that if you want others to give you their undivided attention you request it beforehand

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2. The other person is in a state of fatigue. If someone is in “brain fog”—or maybe it’s nighttime and they’re already yawning, more than ready to hang it up for the day—and, notwithstanding, you still make efforts to engage them, you’re significantly increasing the likelihood that you’ll be misunderstood. For they may not have enough mental acuity remaining to follow your thoughts. (And,additionallythey may be too tired even toarticulate this to you!) So consider that, as any good comic would tell you, “timing is everything.” It’s imprudent (if not downright foolish) to approach anything complex or conflictual when your potential listener is, well, “listened out.”
3. The other person is mad at you. Keep in mind that if the other individual is emotionally upset with you, whatever you say (or write) to them is likely to be taken unfavorably. So this is hardly the time to be making your most forceful arguments to convince them that your point of view is justified, or even superior, to theirs.
Rather, in such instances your job, if you’re willing to accept it, is to hearthem out: To not be the speaker but the auditor, and to see whether you can’t validate where they’re coming from—though it may contrast sharply with your own perspective. For if you want them to recognize the legitimacy of your position, you’ll probably first need to summon up the patience, understanding, and compassion to listen sympathetically to theirs. In general, only by so doing might they be willing to listen to you without projecting onto your words a negatively distorted meaning born of their already being angry or irritated with you.
4. The other person is “negatively sensitized” to you. Going beyond what was stated above, your relationship may have deteriorated to the point that almost anything that comes out of your mouth will be received in a negative light. Especially in distressed marriages, if things have gone sour between the two of you, whatever you say is likely to be interpreted unfavorably. Your partner—now afflicted with a strong bias against you, and so no longer willing to give you the benefit of the doubt—is likely to perceive your explicit, or implied, meaning as something opposite to your (possibly) benign or reconciliatory intentions.

So if you’re serious about quelling the hostility that’s overtaken your relationship, here’s one of the best things you can do: As non-defensively as possible, clarify what you meant to say, even as you empathically “identify” with your partner’s reality, sharing that you can appreciate how—given all the disagreements and misunderstandings that have led to your present stalemate—they might not be able to help theiraversely misunderstanding you.
5. You’re reminding the other person of something from their past. This particular reason for another’s mistaking your meaning is far more common than most people realize. But psychologically, it makes perfect sense. And one tip-off of such a “mistaken identity” is when, in anger, your partner says to you: “You’re just like my mother! [or ‘father’].” Assuming they have substantial unresolved issues with either caretaker—and in the moment something about your behavior reminded them of him or her—you can be almost sure that whatever you said revivified old feelings of parental acrimony.
But even beyond this, there’s always the possibility (and it might only be some coincidental physical similarity) that another person misunderstood you because you unwittingly brought up something negative for them, the dynamics of which you couldn’t possibly appreciate. So whenever you feel seriously misconstrued, it’s wise—gingerly—to say something like: “What did you just hear me say? I’m puzzled by your reaction. Might I have reminded you of somebody else?”
6. The other person is strong-willed and rigid; has stringent, intransigent opinions; or isn’t able to “take in” any viewpoint other than their own.Unquestionably, whatever you might say to someone this uncompromising will pass through a “filter” protectively in place for them and render impossible their ability to accurately, objectively, or sympathetically comprehend what you’re trying to share. Their archly defensive, or mentally blinded, stance inevitably leads them to twist things around so they can remain safe and secure within their (exceedingly narrow) comfort zone. If this is the case, then either you need to be painstakingly careful in how you approach them or—if it’s a viable option—not approach them at all, at least in areas where they’ve already shown extreme reactivity.
7. The other person might be less educated or sophisticated than you.What assumptions might you be making about the depth or breadth of another’s knowledge base? Might your communication have included an allusion with which they were totally unfamiliar? It could have referred to a mythic creature such as Hercules, Prometheus, Sappho, or Ulysses; or a literary work like King LearMadame BovaryPride and Prejudice, The Trial, or The Sound and the Fury; or a word like acquiescence,ambivalence, fulsomenonplussed,or plethora—which you wrongfully estimated the individual would know the meaning of. But which, frankly, many people do not.
The same thing with using jargon and abbreviations—technical terms or verbal short-cuts that you may be so familiar with that you assume everyone else must also be cognizant of them. But, however surprisingly, the person you’re addressing may never have encountered such a word or phrase before. Think, from medicine, stat or DNR; from politicsSCOTUSor libertarian; from economics, yield curvebubble,or GDP; from the military, AWOL or IED; from law enforcement, Code EightDOA, or APB; or, from the Internet, hashtag, BFF, or even WTF [!] ).
8. The other person may have quite different associations with the word(s) you’re employing. Put a little differently, what certain words connote to you may be dramatically different from the person you’re speaking to. And this may be particularly true if English isn’t their first language. But in a variety of situations you could be misunderstood because the meaning you ascribe to a word—or its nuances, or “coloring,” just isn’t what’s getting transmitted to the other. For example, complimenting the innocence or spontaneity of someone’s behavior, you might employ the word childlike.But they may regard this term as synonymous with the much less flattering term childish, and so take strong offense.

9. The other person may not have correctly understood a word or phrase you used because of your pronunciation. Or it may be that your accent, or inflection—perhaps foreign to their native culture—led them to (mostly negatively) misinterpret your meaning. Or they may have altogether “missed” your message because of a bad phone connection, hearing loss, or even an information-processing deficit. So, once again, if their reaction to you doesn't seem to make much sense, it's advisable to ask them what they heard you say. For, certainly, you don't want to pass up the opportunity to correct their misinterpretation of your intent. 
In ending this piece, I’ll provide what, to me, is a particularly humorous example of the miscellaneous phenomena referred to directly above. It’s taken from a recent personal experience I had in needing to undergo a diagnostic procedure—which necessitated that I don a one-size-fits-all hospital gown. Since the room was a bit chilly (and I’m prone to the sniffles), I strategically stuffed a couple of facial tissues into one of the robe’s pockets. When the technician detected a bulge there, he inquired as to what I’d placed inside. And when I replied, “Kleenex,” he immediately perked up and responded, “Oh . . . peanuts!” (making me wonder whether perhaps I’d reminded him of a favorite snack!). . . .
Note 1: If you found this post in any way illuminating, I hope you’ll share its link with others. Additionally, if you’d like to check out other posts I’ve written for Psychology Today—on a broad variety of topics—click here.
Note 2: Since I’ve written many different articles on relationship matters, here are some titles and links for anyone interested in reviewing them:


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