How Do You Avoid Being Misunderstood?

Last weekend I was misunderstood, and it was not a good experience.  

I was attending an end of season sporting function. I arrived at the venue with my kids and saw my friend Josh’s wife and daughter getting out of their car and approaching us.  I’m thinking “Great, here’s Julie and Tracy. I’m glad they’re coming. I wonder where Josh is”. As they approach I say “Hello” in a subdued voice and then in a stronger voice, “Where’s Josh? I was really looking forward to seeing him”. Then, in a playful way, I say to Tracy (the daughter), “Hi Tracy, how are you”. 

As we all start walking to the entrance of the venue Julie turns to me and says, “I can’t believe how rude you are. You didn’t even say hello to me. It’s like I didn’t exist. I can’t believe it. You are just so rude.”

At this stage I became confused and embarrassed. Then anger started to rise. Why would Julie accuse me of being rude?  That was the last thing I had in mind. This is so unfair. Julie is being unreasonable.

But what might have been Julie’s version of these events?  Here’s my best guess.

“I’m walking towards Mark and the girls and the first thing he says is “Where’s Josh?” He doesn’t say “Hi Julie how are you?” Just where’s Josh. Then he talks to Tracy. No hello for Julie. This is just like the time he didn’t return my phone call. He clearly doesn’t have time for me. I can’t believe he treats me like this. He is just so rude.”

From Julie’s viewpoint she was being completely reasonable.

We each interpret our own sensory data in creating our personal stories and versions of events.  Our interpretations rely on our past experiences, our values, beliefs, expectations, assumptions etc.  So our personal interpretations of stories and events will always be different and always reasonable from our own viewpoint.  But interpretations being reasonable do not make them the only or correct version of events.  Other people may have more information and bring different experiences, values and assumptions to bear, and so provide alternative explanations that are just as reasonable.  Thus misunderstandings take place.

How do you avoid being misunderstood?  The key is making sure that when communicating you share all of the relevant information. The social psychologist Sherod Miller calls it your “Information Wheel”. If you share your facts, your thoughts, how you feel, what you want and what you’ve done, there is less likelihood of being misunderstood. Incorrect assumptions are less likely to be made. Ambiguity will be removed, so actions that risk being interpreted as evidence of bad intent will be understood and accepted.

In the personal scenario above I should have immediately shared my thoughts and emotion about being pleased to see Julie and Tracey rather than a soft “Hello” that Julie probably didn’t hear.  This would have removed the risk of Julie interpreting that I didn’t care about her.

Misunderstanding may cause grief in your personal life.  In the workplace misunderstanding inevitably leads to higher costs.  It leads to mistakes, to delays, to strained relationships, to destructive conflict and to lower productivity.

So as a leader, it makes sense to take the proper time to explain your decisions.

  • Talk about the evidence that you have taken into account. “I have spoken to the customer and read the report”.
  • Acknowledge your assumptions. “My assumption is that if we don’t lower our error rate, we are going to lose the business”.
  • Share your expectations and concerns. “I’m concerned that if we lose this customer, there will be retrenchments.”
  • Explain clearly what you want to achieve for the business and everyone involved and how that has influenced your decision. “I want to ensure that we grow our revenues, achieve our goals and keep our jobs.”
  • Explain your past actions, what you’ve learnt from them and what you propose to do next. “I’ve tried your suggestion before and it didn’t end well so I’m proposing we try it this way.”

It also makes sense to keep to keep your language simple and concrete.  This will remove ambiguity, enhance communication and so reduce instances of people making incorrect assumptions of bad intent.

Have a great week.

Mark Rosenberg