By Steve Adubato, PhD
We rarely communicate as effectively as we think we do. Effective communication is defined as message sent equals message received. Sounds simple, right? Wrong!
Miscommunication and misunderstandings are a lot more common than we think. Even people with all the best intentions can have a very difficult time getting on the same page. Consider this all too typical communication scenario between a husband (Jim) and his wife (Jane);
Jane asks, "Do you think that I look fat in this outfit?" A simple straightforward question intended to get a direct, honest response.
Well, Jim is not so sure. He thinks to himself, "Does she really want the truth? I think she looks better in her other red outfit, but I am afraid to say so. I'm not sure what she wants to hear." Finally, Jim responds, "You look great in anything you wear, Jane."
Somewhat miffed, Jane says, "That's not what I asked, Jim. I asked about THIS outfit. Can't you ever give me a straight answer?" Frustrated, she leaves the room with Jim standing there thinking to himself, "Damned if I do--damned if I don't."
This type of miscommunication doesn't just happen with couples. It happens every day in all sort of work-related circumstances. Yet, no matter when or why it happens, one thing is quite clear-rarely is one or both of the parties aware that it has actually happened. Most of us have conversations assuming that we have communicated perfectly and are perfectly understood. Talk about wishful thinking.
Dr. Deborah Tannen, one of the nation's top experts on language, is the author of the book "That's Not What I Meant." Says Tannen, "A lot of seemingly inexplicable behavior-signs of coming closer or pulling back-occurs because others react to our styles of talking in ways that lead them to conclusions that we never suspect. Many of our motives, so obvious to us, are never perceived to the people we talk to."
Dr. Tannen says countless instances of what we perceive to be rudeness or inconsiderateness are usually caused by "differences in conversational style." Some say the answer to this dilemma is to be more direct in our communication, thereby diminishing the odds of misunderstanding. Again, not so fast.
Consider the following "honest" comments and how you might react to them; "I'm not convinced you can handle this project, so I need Joe to give you a hand with it." Or, "I don't want to go to dinner with you because you are so darn boring."
What is direct to one person may be seen as rude to another. While candor with some common sense has its place, one of the keys to reducing misunderstanding is to be aware of how common it is and communicate accordingly. Having different conversational styles doesn't mean we can't get on the same page. It just means it takes more work.
Some of the reasons for miscommunication include cultural background, gender, ethnicity, age, geography, but most of all the history of the people involved in the conversation. While there are no easy answers, increasing your awareness of these factors can be combined with showing greater empathy toward the other person, paraphrasing what you think you've heard, not being defensive and finally, consciously working to improve our listening skills. Even with all that, misunderstanding and miscommunication will continue to occur, but it just won't happen as much.
When was the last time you were misunderstood? Why did it happen and what did you do about it? Write to me.