A single moment of misunderstanding can feel so toxic and poisonous that it can cause us to forget a hundred lovable times spent together, within just a moment. Given the day in which we live, misunderstanding is common. And if our misunderstandings simply stayed in the realms of thoughts and beliefs, then it might be okay to leave them alone, un-examined and unexplored.
Sadly however, in our super-charged media and social media environment, people not only have augmented platforms on which to broadcast their misunderstandings but misunderstanding today have had significant impacts on people’s mental and emotional health, their choices, their relationships, their careers, and their business results. So, we all need to better understand how to find common ground in misunderstanding.
No one can address the complex topic of misunderstandings from a place of perfection, including me. As a matter of fact, I have both misunderstood the intentions, words and actions of others, and I have also been misunderstood by people that I love, respect, and value.
At its core, a misunderstanding is simply a failure to understand something correctly. However, the worst distance between two people is misunderstanding. Here are some musings about misunderstandings…
- Communication is always a 50/50 responsibility…
– The Sender is responsible to send the message as she or he intends it. The responsibility is to be understood…
– The Receiver is responsible to receive the message as it was intended, the responsibility is to understand.
– The Receiver is then responsible to send their message back as she or he intends it. The responsibility is to be understood…
- I am responsible for what I say to you, not what you understand. The Sender is responsible for what they say to you, and how they say it, and yet we are responsible for what we understand. And we also need to acknowledge that what we understand is often shaped and even coloured by our own experiences, our journey, our current state of mind, and the overall context.
- Do not waste your time trying to explain who you are to people who are committed to misunderstanding you. We find ourselves in a politically charged environment where labels abound. You may be misunderstood by others simply because they label you due to your gender, your ethnicity, your sexuality, your level of education, the color of your skin, and even how you dress. Sadly, when people are committed to their misunderstanding more than they are committed to working towards shared understanding, it is only a waste of your time and theirs to try to explain who you are to them. Never apologize to others for their misunderstanding of who you are, especially if they haven’t given you the time or courtesy of the two-way dialogue and conversations required to get there.
- Most misunderstandings could be avoided if people simply took the time to ask, “What else could this mean?” Don’t make assumptions. Find the courage to ask questions and ask what you want. Communicate with others clearly to avoid misunderstanding, trauma and drama. With just this one commitment, you can completely transform your life.
So then, how can we find common ground amid misunderstanding? I don’t have it all figured out, but the following are a few thoughts you may find helpful. I have often used the acronym “R.E.A.C.H.” when it comes to finding common ground in misunderstanding…
Finding Common Ground in Misunderstanding – “R.E.A.C.H.”:
“R” – Rapport: Take the time to build rapport. When a relationship has a foundation of trust and rapport, it can sustain complexity, misunderstanding, and even conflict.
Rapport helps people feel connected, and it reduces the stress in communication between two people. The act of communication itself is complex, bringing together two completely different personalities, backgrounds, perspectives and focal areas. Building trust and rapport increases mutual understanding, and it leads to authentic influence.
So, how do you build rapport? The best way is to unleash your mirror neurons. A mirror neuron is a neuron that fires when we observe an action performed by another person, and when we also demonstrate that behaviour in response. Thus, the neuron “mirrors” the behavior of the other, as though the observer were acting. Evolutionary biologists theorize that this sort of “mirroring and matching” helped the earliest humans to create safety and commonality with each other, so there could be a shared sense of “tribe” and connection. The earliest humans could only survive in a tribal context, and so mirroring and matching helped them to stay connected to and safe with one another. Being connected to a tribe made early humans far safer from animal and other human predators, because they were not alone.
In other words, when we “mirror and match” other people when communicating, we create a sense of shared safety and connection. We increase the chances of the other person feeling safe, and our own sense of safety. Mirroring and matching can include body language, tone, breathing, rate of speech, and language. The critical key is that we need to have genuine integrity and deep authenticity.
“E” – Empathy: Researchers at the University of California, Berkley, are challenging long-held beliefs that human beings are wired to be selfish. In a wide range of studies, social scientists are amassing a growing body of evidence to show that we are successful as a species precisely because of our nurturing, altruistic and compassionate traits. The most successful and the most fulfilled are generally those who care and show empathy towards others. They call it, “the survival of the kindest”. Even Albert Einstein said that, “Only a life lived for others is worth living.”
Empathy can be defined as the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. It does not mean that you completely understand or share the feelings of others, but that you are able to get out of your own lens for a few moments to see through the lens of another. If misunderstanding is simply a failure to understand something correctly, then empathy can be very helpful in helping us to understand and share the feelings of another.
“A” – Attentive Listening: One of the most sincere forms of respect is actually listening to what the other person has to say. Interestingly, the word “LISTEN” also contains the same letters as the word “SILENT”. Think on that for a moment.
A while ago I saw a headline in the Globe & Mail that said, “Canadians Want Bosses to Listen Better”. This was a survey of 1,000 working Canadians across the country asking respondents to suggest a New Year’s Resolution for their boss. The top response was that leaders should listen more closely to their staff.
At the core, each of us have a fundamental need to be valued, to be cared for, and to be authentically heard. Giving people the gift of fully engaged listening is truly validating and affirming. The single greatest mistake we can make is not fully developing the skill and art of being effective listeners.
People long to be listened to, to be understood, and to be known. We have 2 ears and 1 mouth, so we can listen twice as much as speak! Most of us seek to first be heard and then hear; to speak well and only then do we listen well. This is backwards and ineffective. Stephen Covey in “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People”, said that, “If I were to summarize in one sentence the single most important principle I have learned in the field of interpersonal relations, it would be this: Seek first to understand, then to be understood. This principle is the key to effective interpersonal communication.” If we’re going to prevent misunderstanding, first we need to listen to people, and then understand them to locate where they’re at.
We also need to listen “between the lines”; to hear beyond the words. This looks like listening to what is being said and listening to what is not being said. Part of this is not being so quick to give advice or to speak. There is often huge value in simply letting people vent. The less we speak and interject and offer comment, the more we will hear, understand, and appreciate. I like to think of listening in terms of 3 levels:
Level 1 Listening – We focus on the words and how they affect ourselves. The attention is on “me” – my thoughts, judgments, issues, conclusions, and feelings. We listen for facts, such as directions to a store.
Level 2 Listening – Our attention shifts to the other person; we focus on what they are saying, how they are saying it and what creates or takes away energy. We let go of judgment; we’re not planning what to say next.
Level 3 Listening – All information surrounding the conversation is taken in. All of the senses are employed, including intuition. It picks up mood, pace, energy. It is “being over there” and “there” is where the other person is. This deeper level of listening provides a deeper level of understanding. Rather than coming up with an immediate solution, the person comes up with their own solutions and action plans.
“C” – Communicate with Skill: We live in a time where even the most skilled communicators are struggling when it comes to how they communicate. The goalposts continue to shift, and ever-greater diversity and inclusivity, though this is wonderful, means that may have worked in communication even 3 years ago is not working well today. This means that we must regularly audit our personal and professional communication.
Here are 3 critical skills in communication which have served me very well, when I have been wise enough to consistently apply them:
Speak with Respect – Buddha: “If you propose to speak always ask yourself: is it true, is it necessary, is it kind?” Rudeness is simply a weak person’s imitation of strength.
Speak with Truth – If you are in fact speaking with respect, then you must also speak with truth. Share your truth in a way that the doesn’t point the finger or lay blame, but simply describes your experience.
Speak with Structure – Organize your thoughts and feelings into words. Speak with intelligent structure – for example by using a “what – so what – now what” approach. Start talking about the what. Then about why it’s relevant. Then what you think the next steps should be.
“H” – Have A Solid Sense of Personal Identity and Worth: Lao Tzu said this: “At the center of your being you have the answer: you know who you are and you know what you want.”
Misunderstandings challenge our sense of worth and value. Perhaps this is because we may desperately want to be liked, or because we feel we are being judged and devalued. Maybe its because of our own frustrations over our communication fails, or because we may lack the ability to put into words what our heart really feels.
Whatever the case may be, communication with other humans can be hard on our sense of personal worth and identity, simply because others will never fully understand the insides of our soul, and that alone can lead to misunderstanding and misinterpretation. Having said that, the reality is that if you care too much about what other people think, you will always be their prisoner. And frankly, I am not sure that caring too much about what people think will lead to less misunderstanding and more effective communication anyways.
One final thought: The world of communication in general is fraught with challenges, especially in the day we find ourselves in. Given this context, every coach and leader should conduct regular and deeply honest Communication Audits. There is no better way to do this then to find 3-5 people who can speak truth to you, with grace, about how you come across in your verbal and non-verbal communication. Passionately seek these truth speakers out, because the more feedback you have, the better you will communicate, and misunderstanding will minimize. Self-awareness does not stop us from making mistakes, but it can certainly allow us to learn from them.
Finding common ground amid misunderstanding is neither easy nor without risk, but in the end, a few minutes of effective communication can save a year’s worth of misunderstanding and turmoil. We often only find common ground when we move to higher ground, and this involves “R.E.A.C.H.”: Rapport, Empathy, Attentive Listening, Communication that is Skillful, and Having a Solid Sense of Personal Identity and Worth.