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The Nature of a Misunderstanding
by Greg Baker
4/21/2010 / Relationships
It is important to understand what constitutes a misunderstanding. We've all experienced someone confusing our intentions with what we said. We've all had someone misquote what we said. It's frustrating.
Interestingly enough, the majority of arguments begin with a misunderstanding. I'd say that close to 90% of our relationship problems with people are the result of misunderstandings. Sometimes, it is a gross misunderstanding such as a man getting married for reasons other than his wife believes. But needless to say, motives, and hidden agendas lie outside the framework of this short article. Here, we will concentrate on just a couple of the communication misunderstandings.
A misunderstanding could be the result of several things or some combination thereof:
1. Hearing something that wasn't said.
2. Not hearing something that was said.
3. Not understanding what was said.
4. Not knowing how to say something.
5. Thinking you said something that you really didn't.
6. Misreading body-language.
We've all been there. We've struggled with explaining something in words that is more felt or abstract. We've all thought we heard someone say something that they did not, and we've all fallen victim to someone else's twisted interpretation of what we've said.
It is so easy to fall into a misunderstanding. In fact, there will undoubtedly be folk who misunderstand portions of this article. There are many reasons for that, but they can all lead to communication problems.
As a pastor of a Church, I preach a minimum of 5 times a week, or roughly 4 hours a week. That's 4 hours that I stand before a group of people and attempt to convey truths and ideas (this doesn't include the many hours of counseling that is done). Invariably it can lead to misunderstandings.
1.Sometimes someone will think that I'm preaching only at him.
2. Sometimes a person assumes that he knows what I'm going to say so stops listening and therefore will improperly repeat what is said.
3. Sometimes a person will interpret what I say into something that they can relate to. This often means that what I said has little relevance to their understanding.
4. Sometimes a person will make assumptions based on what I didn't say, thinking it should have been said.
5. Sometimes a person will take a joke literally.
6. Sometimes a person will mishear what I said, and their brain fills in the gap with what they think I might have said and they come to believe I really said it.
7. Sometimes a person will understand exactly what I said, but will mentally change it because they don't believe that I mean it, and that I mean something else.
8. Sometimes my own mouth and brain don't communicate very well, and I'll think something that I should say, but then not say it. Because I thought it, I assumed that I said it, when I didn't.
And there are plenty of other ways for a misunderstanding to impact people. Knowing that this is a real possibility, I go out of my way to avoid misunderstandings if I can.
I've written about all of these, but by way of example, let's discuss, briefly, the last two types of communication misunderstandings:
THINKING YOU SAID SOMETHING THAT YOU REALLY DIDN'T
This is one that I'm guilty of more than I'd care to admit. Sometimes my brain works faster than my mouth and sometimes I think I said something that I never did. I thought it. It crossed my mind. It just never left my mouth.
I believe this happens a lot more frequently than we suppose. I know it happens to me, because I record my sermons and I go back and listen sometimes. Sure enough, I can recall thinking it, but it's not on the recording. Most people don't have that luxury. Ever been around someone that thought they said something you know they didn't?
"Hey, Honey, did you pick up the paper at the store?"
His wife looks quizzical. "Paper? What paper?"
John rolls his eyes in exasperation. "The paper for the printer. Remember? I asked you to get some more."
Jane's mouth tightens, picking up on his sarcasm. "You never asked me to get any."
"Yes I did."
"No you didn't!"
"I must have. I was downstairs and noticed that we were out. I came right up here and told you about it."
Jane sighs. "No John, you didn't. You came up and asked me to get some ice-cream."
"Well yeah, that too. But I told you to get the paper. I'm sure of it."
"Nope. You didn't. Don't get mad at me, John. It's not my fault you forgot."
Now, either one is an out and out liar, or John just thought he asked his wife to get the paper. The latter is much more likely. This kind of scenario happens all the time in households and conversations around the world. Getting the paper crossed John's mind, and so he thought he'd actually asked his wife to get it. He hadn't, and this misunderstanding could easily lead to an argument, finger pointing, accusations, and bitterness. Most domestic squabbles happen over petty things like this.
The only suggestion I can give in a situation like this is to be understanding. Allow for this kind of error. Don't make this into an argument, a fight, or harbor bitterness. Just let it go. Don't try to prove your case, don't accuse each other, and don't make it into something bigger than it is. Let it go.
MISREADING BODY LANGUAGE
There might be some people around that are efficient at doing this, but for the most part we are lousy at reading someone's body language. We do it. We do it a lot. And we do it wrong. When someone's words and body language don't match, we try to correlate the two. More often than not, this leads to a misunderstanding.
Recently, while in a counseling session, I asked someone, "Do you agree that there is a problem?" He hesitated a moment and then nodded his head. "Yeah, I guess." Immediately, I read his body language and listened to his words and thought, Ah, he doesn't really. He's just trying to appease me. He doesn't think there's a problem. That's my assumption when I tried to reconcile the words and the body language. But knowing how difficult it is to accurately read body language, I asked, "You hesitated. Do you really think there isn't a problem?" He replied, "Oh no. There is-definitely is. I just don't like admitting it out loud."
So the hesitation was a result of his unwillingness to admit it aloud. It wasn't what I thought. If I hadn't asked the question, I would have gone on believing something that wasn't true.
WARNING: Reading body language is seldom accurate and usually leads to misunderstandings.
You aren't a mind reader. You have no idea what is going on in someone's mind. Don't assume you know what a person is thinking just because of his body language. For all you know, they need to go to the bathroom.
There have been a few who have grown proficient in this art. But it is still a risky endeavor. It is still based on assumptions, and sometimes dangerous assumptions.
For the average person, the best thing to do is this:
1. Observe their body language.
2. If it doesn't match what you expected, ask about it.
3. Ask good questions for clarification. Give them a chance to explain.
4. Accept the explanation as truth.
Too many people walk around thinking that everyone is out to get them. If you ask for clarification and get it, accept it. Don't walk away thinking, "Yeah right." That's dangerous.
Body language is the result of many things. Thoughts, fears, concerns, joys, bodily aches and pains, tiredness, confusion, and nervousness are just a few of the things that affect a person's body language. Don't make assumptions. Just ask non-threatening questions for clarification and accept what is said.
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