The majority of conflict can often be traced to a simple misunderstanding. Pride, however, gets in the way as some people falsely belief that to misunderstand somehow implies fault, ignorance, lack of intelligence, and/or not having a grasp on reality. Reality is subjective. Every single person has a different point of view based on experience, triggers, culture, and a host of other items. The key in healthy communication is to understand how difficult communication can actually be and to seek to bridge the inevitable barriers that lead to misunderstanding.
To illustrate, one of my favorite examples of a misunderstanding that nearly broke a relationship was the story of my Mom and Dad’s first (almost) date.
My parents were teenagers when my mom moved to the same street two doors down from my father. A beautiful bright-eyed teenager with a big heart and sensitive soul, my father was immediately smitten yet took some time to become friends and then asked her out. Excited for her date, my mother spent all day with her best friend shopping in downtown San Francisco for the perfect outfit and getting her hair and makeup done. After the long day of girl fun and date prep, my Dad stopped by to discuss the date details (it was a couple’s date) and time he’d come back to get her. He then asked her the fatal question that could have broken them up before they even got started (which felt extra scary when my Mom told the story as it meant my brother, sister and I wouldn’t have been born)—he asked what she was going to wear.
My mom was already dressed in her new outfit that she spent all of her money on and would recount that it was the nicest item she owned. She felt mortified and inadequate by his question, so she lied and said she didn’t know what she’d wear. Later she phoned him and said she wasn’t feeling well and backed out of the date. He thought she wasn’t interested in him and took someone else out instead that night. I’m not even sure when the truth came out or how they managed to work past all of that. Yet, somehow they did and perhaps that episode helped them realize that you can’t always believe what you think the other person is communicating.
In the book, “The Art of Listening,” Michael Nichols describes that even the simplest communication has multiple components that run the risk of creating misunderstanding: the listener and the speaker, their different points of view, the words they speak and the different meaning each word has for each person, the implicit message (intent versus actual words), the context, and the process of flow. Moreover the process is more circular in nature yet might be interpreted in a more linear fashion. If this doesn’t sound complicated enough, imagine adding lots of emotion, expectations, fears, and triggers. Again, it’s a miracle any message can get across to anyone.
In addition, Nichols says that we are trained not to say what we mean from an early age. He describes that as a child, he was taught not to ask for anything at someone’s house. If he was thirsty, he would try to look extra thirsty. If offered a glass of water, he would politely decline. Then, only if they insisted, would he graciously accept the offer.
We are like perpetual people pleasers hoping the other person can read our minds and understand the game and art of mindreading. The problem is the game does not work and we generally get things wrong—no matter how “in tune” we are with others.
LISTEN – While seemingly obvious, many people begin crafting their reply without really listening to the other person. Or they become so emotionally charged that they are hearing the person through filters from their past or from what they think the person is saying. In addition, listen to the entire content the person is conveying. Oftentimes, people hear the beginning sentences and jump on that conclusion without realizing the person was going to go in a different direction.
REPEAT—Try not to echo, yet take the time to repeat what you’ve heard and ask if that is what the person is conveying. Don’t be afraid to say “Did I understand you correctly? Are you preferring that we go to the movies instead of dinner?” or “Are you concerned that we won’t make the deadline, so you want to get a better grasp of what we’ve done to date and how long it will take?” Or, if it feels like the person is saying one thing while really expressing something else (the meta-message), you can respond with, “It might be me, yet you seem a little distant and I realize I’ve been preoccupied lately. Is that what’s bothering you or is there something else that’s weighing on your heart?”
SHARE—Communication is a two-way street. When one person opens up and shares their experience, reciprocate. “Oh that is how you felt. This is what I was experiencing…” Be vulnerable and do your best to articulate your feelings. Lose the pride, as pride is the enemy of honest communication.
BE FLEXIBLE—Know that in spite of all of your efforts, there may still be a misunderstanding. That’s okay. Every person has a different point of view, so no two people see things exactly the same. There is no right or wrong, just the mutual sharing of different experiences on the journey of life.
SAY “I” NOT “YOU”—“I statements” are powerful because they keep you where you belong—speaking your feelings from your point of view and sharing your own experience. We can’t speak for others. Only they can share their feelings. We can say we were hurt by a behavior but it crosses a line when we accuse or blame the other person. However, we can say another person’s behavior doesn’t work for us because it makes us feel unsafe or uncomfortable. Telling the other person they are wrong for doing the behavior or telling them what they feel is not our business or our place (because we actually don’t know). As my good friend Rod says, “Stay in your own hoola hoop.”
LEARN—You’ve had a misunderstanding. Perhaps it was even cataclysmic. Grow and learn from it. Use it to foster closeness in that relationship or others. Definitely use it to create a greater awareness of what you think and feel and how you speak and listen. We are all in this life to learn and grow, so be gentle on yourself and trust the process.
PAUSE—If conflict does occur as a result of a misunderstanding, give it time. Either pause a moment before reacting and try to gather clarification so you can respond, or ask for time to process. Either way, time heals all wounds—eventually.
Use these tips and keep trying. Enjoy the good feelings when you have feel understood and can understand the other person and learn from the times misunderstandings occur. The most basic need of humankind is the need for others and a sense of belonging and connectedness, so working on your listening and communication skills is truly the best gift you can give yourself and the world. We all need each other.