Evolution of the Self

On the paradoxes of personality

9 Reasons It's So Easy to Be Misunderstood

You think you're being crystal clear. It may not matter.

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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?

Here are 9 varying explanations as to why communication that, however carefully you delivered it—whether orally or in writing, might be quite different from the communication actually received. And doubtless, there are others:

  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 just weren't mentally available. Nonetheless, you may need to take some responsibility, for it’s also possible that you started talking without making sure you’d secured their attention. Remember, our minds are always occupied with something. It’s only fair that if you want others to give you their undivided attention, you ask for it.

  2. The other person is in a state of fatigue.

    If someone is in a “brain fog”—or maybe it’s nighttime and they’re already 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. They may just not have enough mental acuity at the moment to follow youand they may be too tired even to articulate this to you. 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 “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 superior to theirs. Rather, in such instances, your job, if you’re willing to accept it, is to hear them 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. 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.

    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 a distressed marriage, 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 even reconciliatory intentions. 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 aversely 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. 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 that person—you can be almost sure that whatever you said revived old feelings of parental acrimony. 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 held in place and rendering impossible their ability to accurately, objectively, or sympathetically comprehend what you’re sharing. 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, you either need to be painstakingly careful in how you approach them or—if it’s a viable option—not approach them at about topics to which 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? Might your communication have included an allusion with which they were totally unfamiliar? It could have referred to a character like Prometheus, Sappho, or Ulysses; a literary work like Madame Bovary, The Trial, or The Sound and the Fury; or a word like acquiescence, fulsome, or nonplussed—which you wrongfully estimated the individual would know the meaning of, but, frankly, many people do not. It's the same with jargon and acronyms—technical terms or verbal short-cuts you may be so familiar with that you assume everyone else must also be cognizant of, but many may never have encountered—think DNR, SCOTUS, GDP, IED, or Code Eight (or even BFF, or WTF!).

  8. The other person may have quite different associations with the word(s) you’re using.

    What certain words connote to you may be dramatically different from what they connote to the person you’re speaking to (particularly 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 gets transmitted. For example, complimenting the innocence or spontaneity of someone’s behavior, you might employ the word childlike. But someone else may regard this term as synonymous with the much less flattering term childish, and take strong offense.

  9. The other person may not have correctly understood a word or phrase you used because of your pronunciation, your accent, or inflection—which may have 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.

    Again, if someone's reaction to you doesn't seem to make much sense, it's advisable to ask what they heard you say. Certainly you don't want to pass up the opportunity to correct their misinterpretation. 

In ending this piece, I’ll provide what, to me, is a particularly humorous example of the miscellaneous phenomena referred to 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!).

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If you found this post in any way illuminating, I hope you’ll share its link with others. I’ve written many other posts on relationship matters. Here are some titles and links:

If you’d like to see other posts I’ve written for Psychology Today—on a broad variety of topics—click here.

© 2014 Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved. I invite readers to join me on Facebook, and to follow my miscellaneous (and sometimes unorthodox) musings on Twitter.

Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D., who holds doctorates in English and Psychology, is a clinical psychologist and author of Paradoxical Strategies in Psychotherapy.

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