Love, Self

Miscommunication: When What They Hear Isn't What You Said

“I know you believe you understand what you think I said. I'm not sure you realize what you heard is not what I meant.”- Robert McCloskey

It has happened to all of us. We say something, and it is misconstrued or taken out of context and, suddenly, the person hearing it becomes incensed. They respond without thinking about it, and you are left with drama or a big problem. It happens at work, school and home. It happens in our marriages and relationships almost every day. Women talk about what their boyfriend, mother, friends and even strangers say to them all the time. Then they tell their friends and boyfriends and husbands, which keeps the drama growing. Men get in on it too, especially if they are quick to anger. The issue isn’t an issue until someone responds; that’s what fuels the fire and stirs it up until everything is so intensified that no one knows who they are angry at, why they were angry, or why it even mattered in the first place. When I counsel in my office, most of the session is spent clarifying what was said and what was heard. It is often a tedious process, but you cannot understand why you are upset if you no longer know who said what and, more importantly, if they meant what you heard.

Miscommunication often happens when we think we know someone very well and begin to assume certain aspects about their personality. This is dangerous, since the only certain truth is that humans are very unpredictable. Husbands and wives that have been married for 25 or more years are still surprised by one another, and teenagers are shocked when they see their mom and dad doing something they had assumed they were too old to ever partake in. Texting, emailing and social networks have heightened the problem. When you communicate electronically, the receiver can assume all sorts of emotions. They can see anger where there are only a few capitals, and they can see excitement with a few exclamation points. Some people always write in caps, and I have a lot of excited people who text me with exclamation points. They cannot all be as excited as they are expressing. Electronic communication also takes away the body language, which is so important when you are trying to convey a feeling.
If you find yourself in the middle of a conflict, before you text, email or post something on your Facebook, it is wise to take a breath and a break. Below are a few other suggestions, which will minimize the damage and diminish the ongoing drama (at least from your end).

1. Remind yourself that feelings are never right or wrong, they just are. If the person writing or texting you is feeling a certain way, there is nothing you will gain by jumping in too quickly because there is no right or wrong.

2. Most likely the person who initiates the conversation is feeling strongly one way. If you take the opposing angle, there will be drama to follow. You will be doing the initiator and yourself a huge favor at this point if you respond by telling the person exactly what you hear. It is called “parroting.” It simply means restating what they have said. It sounds ludicrous, but it works. When people become upset they also become scattered with thoughts. They will begin to pull in bits and pieces from their past that validate how they are feeling. They may be angry because something you said sounded like something their mother or father said in the past that hurt them. This feeling was never resolved so it gets thrown into the emotions they are upset with now. Most of us just want to know the person we are talking to is listening to us. Parroting may look like this:

Person A: “I am really angry and upset!”
Person B. (that’s you): “I hear you, and you are telling me that you are really angry and upset.”

3. When the person, who is angry, upset, or hurt, reveals what they are upset about, it is a good opportunity to state your intention. At this point, make no assumptions and check to be sure they heard what you said. This is very important, because many times the communication is still not clear.

This may seem like a lot of work to make sure someone you care about is really hearing what you say, but your ability to take it slowly reinforces three very important aspects about your character:

1. It says you care enough about this person to not let something you did hurt them intentionally.
2. It says that you care enough about your thoughts and actions to make sure they are not misrepresented by someone.
3. It says you value clear communication and that you are willing to take the time to listen and try to understand another’s point of view.

If you ask anyone the keys to happiness in relationships, marriage, careers, and families, you will hear many different responses. If you continue unraveling those numerous responses, you will come up with one; that one is the ability to communicate well with those you value the most. –Mary Jo Rapini


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