There has been a recurring theme that shows itself more and more in my life and it’s all related to how people communicate their intentions, the perceptions of the “receiver” of the communication and the ultimate truth of what is conveyed. It has become incredibly obvious how inefficient words are for truly conveying our intended message. Also, it is equally obvious how someone can wordsmith a message to affect people in different ways depending on their emotional state, level of education, economic status, maturity, etc. The same message can be interpreted by ten people in ten different ways.
I’m going to be giving a few different examples of how this concept has shown itself recently. I’m hoping that by the end of this article you will take some time to reflect on how you communicate to others and how you are perceiving what they are communicating to you. Don’t be so sure you understand their intended message unless you take the time to validate it with them directly. I believe it was Steven Covey who first said, “Seek First to Understand, Then to BeUnderstood“.
Recently my son had injured his back while changing the diaper on his 7 week old son (I know, it does sound kinda funny, but that’s how it happened) and I received a call telling me what had happened and that he tried going to work, but had to return home due to the pain. A few hours later I received a call from his fiance telling me that things hadn’t improved and that they had gone to the emergency room where he had received some more medication. She said, “I just wanted you to know that you are welcome to come over here if you like”. So, upon reaching town, I immediately went over to their house only to find that no one was there. Now, what I heard in my head was a combination of the information I received before, “… tried going to work, but had to return home…”, “… had received some more medication…” and “…you are welcome to come over here…”. These bits of information made me think that he was still at home. But really he was at the emergency room and since I was talking with her via cell phones, “here” is a subjective pronoun. Where is “here” when you are mobile?
The point here is that the intended message from my son’s fiance was to inform me of his situation and invite me to be there with them. My perception was that I was supposed to be with them at their house. But the truth was he was at the ER. To have made this conversation more effective, I should have clarified what she was telling me to ask where “here” was, but I didn’t even consider this. This is just a harmless example of how an intended message was mostly transferred intact between two people but there was a critical piece of information left to assumption.
Another story that was recently sent to me told of a man driving his new car along a residential street to suddenly to have a brick thrown at his car door. He stopped and in a rage grabbed the small boy who had thrown the brick and yelled at him for ruining his new car. The boy was finally able to explain that he threw the brick to get help as no one was stopping to help his older brother who had fallen out of his wheel chair and this boy couldn’t get him up. The man quickly apologized, helped them both and never fixed the dented car door so it would remind him of how he acted and how he needed to not make assumptions. The intention of the boy throwing the brick was to get help, the perception of the man was that they boy was a trouble maker. Each of them had their own perceived reality of the situation and saw it as the truth and both were right for at least part of the time. It wasn’t until one of them had to give more information and the other was willing to understand it that the real truth emerged for both and their realities merged for that moment.
The last example of and intended message having a different meaning for multiple people is children’s cartoons. Anyone who has taken their child to see the Lion King or watched a Saturday morning cartoon can attest that there are innuendo, concepts and meanings behind the dialog as well as the images that are lost to most children. The intention is to entertain both the child and the adult, the perception by both is to enjoy the story at each level of perception and the truth is that they both get something from the story and can enjoy it together.
I am more and more astounded at how easily and intended message can be completely misunderstood by myself and others. I’ve been shown so many examples of how each person’s perspective forms the reality of their perception. This perspective changes continually (moment to moment) since it is made up of (among other things) personal experience, current emotional and physical state, as well as the person’s outlook to the future. This has lead me to think of how it’s possible to ever truly be understood?
One of the struggles of being a parent is the transition of your child to being an adult. You struggle between how to help them succeed and avoid the same mistakes you made and letting them learn things for themselves. I know for my own children this has been a huge issue as of late. I love my children so very much and want to help them in any way that I can. Yet, the “help” that I am giving has been perceived to be interference or even mistrust. Yet, my intentions were centered in love and protection as it has been for their whole lives. I have also experienced other parents sharing with me about their children and some of the struggles they have had. My perception was that they wanted input, advice or even feedback only to find out that they perceived what I said as a judgment on them or their kids.
At times I wonder if I should say anything at all to anyone about my opinions or feelings, even if they ask for them. How can I ever know what I am communicating to someone in words (written or spoken) are ever taken exactly as I intended? How can I grow as an individual unless I share my thoughts? How can we grow as a society unless we find out more effective ways to communicate clearly – and be willing to clarify perceptions before becoming offended?
Below are some things to consider when it comes to communication with others. Take a moment to consider each of these and see how they match up with some of the misunderstandings that have occurred in your relationships. What do you think is important?
- Good Intentions: You have good intentions on giving advice or doing something for another person. Look at the real reason for what you are doing? Can you see any ego involved with how you are going about this intention? Do you feel you “know better” than them and are righteous in your reasoning? Are you doing this as a true reflection of love, compassion and empathy?
- Feelings or Opinions of Right and Wrong: What really defines something as right or wrong? Do you know all the reasons why someone else did what they did? Could you see why their actions were “right” to them? Think about the “brick” story above, is the small child who threw the brick wrong?
- State of Mind and Perceived Reality of the Sender and Receiver: So your allergies are running rampant and you are tired from lack of sleep and you feel no one cares. Now a close friend tells you they are moving from the area to accept a new job. Would you react or feel different about this news if you were healthy? Whatever the current state of mind for the person will alter or shape their perception of reality for everything they experience.
- Utilize Listening Tools: When someone is sharing a story or idea, clarify the information by saying something like, “So what I hear you saying is…” and then you repeat back to them what you think you heard; and then you ask if that is correct. Remember, “Seek first to understand…”.
- Look Outside Yourself: Is your intended information given as a way to support another person with compassion, empathy and love or is it ego based?
- Emotionally Charged Issues: If you are presented with a situation that is significant emotionally charged attributes, do whatever you can to communicate in person verbally rather than responding with a written message. So many emotional issues have exploded when there is an attempt to address them with a written response. You have no idea the state of mind of someone else when it comes to emotions and feelings. Talking in person gives you the added benefit of being able to read their body language and tone of voice.
Now you know that communication is more than just typing some words and pushing send or spewing out your opinions to others. Communication involves both the sender and the receiver and you must realize that what you “send” may not necessarily be what is “received”. Take the time to validate the message you send or receive. If you are sending – ask the person if they fully understand your message (especially if it’s emotionally charged). Taking this extra time and perspective will most certainly help avoid misunderstandings. But there is no guarantee so be prepared to understand the response.