Six Mistakes That Prevent Us From Being Understood*

Six Mistakes That Prevent Us From Being Understood

This article draws from many wells, but the deepest draw is from the book, Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most, by Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton, and Sheila Heen.

Mistake 1. Believing the problem is the other person.

You end up frustrated because the other person is being unreasonable and you feel powerless to do anything about it. These feelings are based on an assumption that underlies too many conversations: I am right, you are wrong

Cat and dog coworkers blaming each other for being the problem.

Who doesn’t believe that our way of doing things is the “right” way? But… thinking this way can lead us to find something wrong with the way someone else acts, and to offer a “solution” that boils down to doing it our way. Have you ever told someone, “If you would just do it thisway, there wouldn’t be a problem”?  How did that work out?  This approach is not persuasive.  Telling someone to change makes it less likely that they will. The secret is that people almost never change without first feeling understood. This is why determining right and wrong is a dead end, but exploring interpretations is valuable.

Tip: As a rule, when things go wrong in human relationships, everyone has contributed in some important way.

Mistake 2. Assuming that we know all we need to know to understand and explain, instead of exploring information the other person has that we don’t. 

We all have different information, and even when we have the same information, we interpret it differently. 

People take in information at different speeds and in different ways. In any situation, we notice some things and ignore others.We notice what we care about. Some pay more attention to feelings and relationships while others are more attuned to status, power, facts, or logic.  Some want to prove they’re right; others want to avoid conflict. Some of see themselves as victims; others as heroes.

And, even when we have the same information, we give it different meaning.  A scene from the movie, Annie Hall, illustrates this well:

Alvie Singer complains: “We never have sex.”
“We’re constantly having sex,” replies his girlfriend. 
“How often do you have sex?” asks their therapist.
“Three times a week!” they say in unison.

We act as if we have access to all the important information there is to know about someone, but we don’t. Being certain locks us away from other people, while curiosity lets us in.

Every strong view we have is profoundly influenced by what we’ve learned throughout your life. And we each apply different rules. We get into trouble when our rules collide. 

The key is knowing that to be understood, we first need to understand the other person’s story well enough to see how their conclusions make sense within it. We assume we know others intentions when we don’t.  Intentions are invisible. We assume them from other people’s behavior, which means that we invent them.

While we care deeply about other people’s intentions toward us, we don’t actually know what their intentions are. Other people’s intentions are invisible to us; and while our knowledge about them is often incomplete or wrong.

Corollary: Being disappointed that someone isn’t reading our mind is one of our contributions to poor communications.

Tips: 

  • Assume that there is important information that you don’t have.
  • The goal should be mutual understanding, not mutual agreement. And if nothing else, you can at least agree that you and the other person see things differently.
  • Label your assumptions about other people’s intentions as a hypothesis that you are checking rather than a statement you are asserting to be true.
  • Make your rules explicit and to encourage others to do the same.
  • Ask yourself:
    What information do they see that I missed or don’t have access to?
    What past experiences influence them?
    What are their reasons for doing what they did?
    What are they feeling?
    What does this situation mean to them?
    How does it affect how they see themselves?

Mistake 3. Being unapproachable (having an interpersonal style that keeps people at bay).

An unapproachable person contributes to this by being dismissive, unpredictable, short-tempered, judgmental, punitive, hypersensitive, or argumentative. Whether you are really any of these things or whether you intend to affect people this way isn’t the point. If someone experiences you this way, they are less likely to raise things with you and more likely to avoid important discussions with you. If you notice messengers arriving in bullet-proof vests, you might want to work on this.

Tip: Look at the situation as a disinterested third party might. If you have trouble seeing yourself or your behaviors from the outside, ask a trusted friend. If what your friend says surprises you, don’t reject it immediately. Instead, imagine that it’s true. Ask yourself how that could be, and what it could mean.

Mistake 4. Instead of working to manage our feelings constructively, we either try to hide them or let them loose in ways that we later regret.

Cat firing dog from a canon.

Feelings matter, and they are too powerful to remain bottled. Feelings will be heard one way or another, as leaks or bursts.  The authors of the book, Difficult Conversations, put it this way: “Unspoken feelings alter your affect and tone of voice. They express themselves through your body language or facial expression. They may take the form of long pauses or an odd and unexplained detachment. You may become sarcastic, aggressive, impatient, unpredictable, or defensive.”

Unexpressed feelings can build into resentments and they can block the ability to listen. Buried emotions block us from asking, “How does what they are saying make sense?” because our mind is stuck in the groove of our own feelings: “I’m so angry!”  It’s remarkable how much our listening ability increases when we’ve expressed our strong feelings.

Tips:

  • Share your feelings, but be sure they are feelings and not attributions, judgments, evaluations, or and accusations. In important conversations, it’s vital to get everyone’s feelings heard and acknowledged.  If your girlfriend says, “I felt hurt,” and you say, “You’re overreacting,” you’ve just short-circuited the opportunity to understand each other. To acknowledge feelings, the authors of Difficult Conversationsrecommend: “… let the other person know that what they have said has made an impression on you, that their feelings matter to you, and that you are working to understand them.” You could say, “I didn’t know you felt that way,” or, “I wondered if you were feeling that way, and I’m glad you trust me enough to share it.”
  • Don’t assume that because you have good intentions, someone else should not feel hurt by things you’ve said or done.  Thinking like this exacerbates communication problems. Don’t think that because you have told someone that you didn’t intend to hurt that they should now feel fine. And, worse, that if they don’t, that’s their problem.
  • Feelings crave acknowledgment— so let people know that you are struggling to understand the emotional content of what they are saying.

Mistake 5. Trying to control someone else’s reaction.

“I just don’t want them to get angry with me.” As someone who avoids conflict, one of my primary goals is to get through a conversation without the other person having a bad reaction. But this can lead to trouble. I can’t change another person, and I can’t control their reaction—and I shouldn’t try. That can be destructive.  I absolutely do not like it when people try to control my reactions, such as when someone tells me not to worry. What I hear is, “I don’t understand how you feel,” or even, “You’re not allowed to be upset by this.”

Tips:

  • Instead of trying to control the other person’s reaction, prepare for it. Imagine they respond in the worst way possible, and ask yourself, “What does this say about me?” Work through the issues in advance: “Is it okay to make someone cry? How will I respond? What if they attack my character?”
  • Remember, You Can’t Change Other People.  People are more likely to change if they think we understand them and if they feel heard and respected. And they are more likely to change if they feel free not to.
  • It’s not our responsibility to make things better; it’s our responsibility to do our best. Sometimes, we have to accept that there are limits—we can’t always make a relationship more comfortable, more nourishing, or more intimate. The best we can do is try. If a relationship is toxic, it’s OK to let it go. It doesn’t mean you don’t care. I’ve had to do this occasionally and I have been much happier as a result. 

Mistake 6.  Having a misguided purpose in your communications.

Let’s say you’re a communications master and you already knew all the stuff this article covers, but the person you want to be understood by still isn’t listening to you. 

The authors of Difficult Conversations say that the best way to address this sort of problem is to spend more time listening to them.

Spy using listening devices.

Often, they say: “the reason the other person is not listening to you is not because they are stubborn, but because they don’t feel heard. In other words, they aren’t listening to you for the same reason you aren’t listening to them: they think you are slow or stubborn.”

The single most important thing is to shift your internal stance from “I understand” to “Help me understand.”

This means listening. The caveat is that listening only works if it’s authentic—listening because you are curious and because you care, not just because you are supposed to.

Tips:

  • Shift your goals to learning.  The happy result may be that you no longer have a message to deliver, but instead some information to share and some questions to ask.  Here’s an example. If you want to talk with your mother about taking her medications more regularly, and she’s avoiding the conversation, you might say: “I get the sense that you don’t like discussing your diabetes medication schedule, at least not the way I bring it up. The problem for me is that I feel worried and I’d like to share why in a way that’s helpful. I don’t seem to know how to do that, and I was wondering if you had any suggestions?” And remember that …curiosity about why she reacts as she does could be a worthwhile conversation.  Or, you could try replacing, “I think you should do organize your overwhelming mountains of paperwork,” with “I’d like to explore whether sorting documents into these six categories might make sense. Here’s my reasoning. I wonder how you see it?”
  • You can tell whether a question will help the conversation or hurt it by thinking about why you asked it. The only good answer is: To learn.
  • Ask open-ended questions—variations on “tell me more” and “help me understand … .”  Try:
    What leads you to say that?
    Can you give me an example? 
    Please tell me more about how you see things.
    What information do you have that I don’t? 
    How do you see it differently?
    What impact have my actions had on you? 
    Were you reacting to something I said? 
    How do you feel about this? 
    Please tell me more about why this is important to you. 
    What would it mean to you if that happened?
  • If you notice that the other person is saying the same thing over and over again, take it as a signal that you need to paraphrase more to let them know you’ve understood.  You can say,Let me check to see if I’m understanding. Would you mind if I just played back what I’ve heard you say?”