Communication is a very complex concept. All the time, people come back to me and tell me they did something ‘you told me to do’, or that they told their partner ‘what you said.’
I love when they communicate this feedback and ask them what it was I said. It’s funny because nine times out of ten, they say something I would never in a million years say. It’s all been interpreted through their thoughts and stories. Most of the time it is benign and no biggie, it can even have really helped them. But once in a while it makes them judge themselves.
It confirms to me that we must take the utmost care what we communicate to people, AND even if we do, we may offend them anyway.
So how much responsibility do we take for our communication?
So many times when I meet with couples, one partner tells the other she feels insulted and the first partner says I am doing it “for your own good.” Or a father who tells his daughter that she needs to lose weight, is “telling her because he is worried about her.” If their intentions are in the right place, does that make them not responsible for the hurt those comments caused?
(Another good example, is when a stranger in a store give you unsolicited parenting advice when you are dealing with you children.)
Yes, they are responsible. We all ought to be responsible for what we say and also get feedback to make sure the person took it in as we attended, so we have opportunity to clarify and apologize if we need to. So often we don’t do this (I–in my rush–fail to do this, too, sometimes).
But even if we do take care to do this, the other person’s negative voices can still change the meaning. And aside from reassuring them, we may feel helpless to stop it.
Critiques and Misunderstanding in Communication
I think people would be better off if we believed in them for what they can do rather than give them unsolicited advice that could sound judgmental, affect their self esteem, and make it ever more difficult for them to change. If they are wracked with self doubt, critiques can be used against them in their minds, keeping them stuck or worse, moving them backwards. For example, I am working with a 21 year old who wanted to help her mother get away from her alcoholic step father. Now, the mom can interpret it as her daughter loves her and thinks she is worthy, and this can lift her up, but since she is already full of shame, where do you think her mind will go?
The more she tells her mom to leave him the more the mom feels humiliation and self contempt. And this could have her evermore stuck.
If your intentions are good, try to read your audience. Make sure your comments are for them and not for you.
Outside of that you can be as careful and conscious as possible and still you’ll be misunderstood once in a while, because you have no control over what story the other person is interpreting it through.
On the receiving end, if someone says something upsetting to us, we have to give people the benefit of the doubt because we could be interpreting them wrong. Try to think of all different ways they could be meaning it. Then, think about what hurt may be going on for them that is behind those words. It is sometimes not even about you. (If they are abusive it is definitely not about you.)
And then think of what hurt you have that makes you interpret it the way you do. This doesn’t mean disregard ALL feedback people give you. If you are not drown by guilt, this feedback could be an opportunity to tweak something about yourself. Welcome it.
I think misunderstandings cause most problems in relationships. We can avoid this by checking in with each other about what things mean. Don’t hesitate!
I am sure you all have great examples of mis-interpretation! Do share some in the comments!