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Have you ever gotten the feeling that what you are saying is not what the other person is hearing? Or have you ever said something innocently, and the other person gets angry at you for attacking them?

Sometimes what we say is not what people hear. And vice versa.  Sometimes we take what other people say in a totally different light than what they intend.

There’s a disconnect.

Why is that? And what can we do about it?

The Danger of Dissonance

Mark Goulston, in his book Just Listen, discusses the concept of dissonance. Dissonance is the disconnect between how someone sees themselves and how others see them. An example Goulston gives is that when someone is yelling and screaming, they may seem intimidating and scary to you, but to themselves, they may feel powerless and small.

People often behave their worst when they feel most powerless.

Sometimes we may come across as rude, or uncaring, or angry and not realize it. In the same fashion, other people may come across that way and not realize it either. It’s easy for us to assume negative motives for that person or to assume that their “negative attitude” has something to do with us. That totally may not be the case.

The next time someone comes across as negative to you, try not to take it personally. Realize the person may have something going on in their life or on their mind. They may be rushing somewhere, or who knows what. Give them the benefit of the doubt.

Maybe ask them, whenever it is appropriate, “Hey, you seemed frustrated or rushed yesterday. Is everything okay?”

For yourself, ask other people about yourself. And, encourage them to be honest. Tell them you are working on improving your communication skills, and you would like feedback.

Simply ask them how you come across. Or if you don’t think people will be honest with you, ask them in what ways you may come across negatively to other people. When they tell you, don’t get upset or argue, just listen. You may learn something about yourself you didn’t realize.

The Perils of Preconceptions

When we (or the other person) enter a conversation with preconceived notions (or assumptions) about what the other person’s motives are (or what they will say or imply), then that hurts communication.

If we already assume what the other person is saying, we will likely miss what the person is REALLY saying. If we assume what the motives of the other person are before they start, we could potentially interpret the whole conversation in a completely wrong way.

Of course, there are reasons we do that sometimes. Sometimes we are insecure about ourselves, and we assume the person is attacking us where we feel insecure. Or maybe the person has done something in the past, or “someone like them” has, so we assume it will happen again.

With other people, especially if you are offering some sort of criticism or suggestion, and you think they thy will get defensive, you can tell them upright “I’m not saying that you are X..” or something of that nature. Let them know what your intentions or motives are upfront. If they still choose to get offended, there is only so much you can do.

With yourself toward other people, ask yourself “Is what I’m thinking an assumption or a fact?” If it’s an assumption, try to find out the truth. You can always ask. Their motives or what they are trying to say may not be what you initially think they are.

The Slipups of Semantics

Sometimes the words we use may have different meanings to different people. If you ask for tea in the South, it’s going to be sweet. However, if you are from the South and go elsewhere and ask for tea, you are likely not to get what you expect.

In the UK if I ask how my pants look, I probably will get weird looks, as the word pants generally refers to underwear in the UK.

There are so many words that can have different meanings; however, you don’t have to live in fear of using the wrong word. When you talk, if you feel like you are losing someone, if they are giving you a “who farted” look (or laughing at you), or they seem to start getting offended or angry, stop and clarify.

Just ask

Dissonance, preconceptions, and semantics can all cause confusion and misinterpretation in a conversation. In all of it, the best step to take when you feel that there is a misunderstanding is to ask.

If you feel they are misinterpreting you, stop and say something like “I feel what I’m saying may be coming across the wrong way – how is what I am saying coming across to you?”

If you someone is coming across negative to you, realize it may not be personal. You can always ask “It seems like there is something on your mind (or you seem frustrated, upset, etc.). Is everything okay? Is there anything I can help you with?”

Here’s to better understanding!

What else have you seen that can cause misinterpretation in a conversation?


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