Understanding and not feeling understood.
Communication is a peculiar thing. We didn’t always have it. It only started to develop as a detailed set of grunts about 100,000 years ago. Over time our vocalizations have become more subtle and nuanced. We have taken an intricate set of sounds and trained our minds to automatically translate them into complex meanings. With a lot of these meanings being invisibly applied in each person’s head, don’t be surprised if you aren’t understood in the first attempt. It is unlikely that your words are being translated to mean what you intend.
Add to that all the different meanings our mind can derive from the same words and there is another layer of distortion and misunderstanding waiting to happen. Suppose someone told you they went to the bank today. Do they mean a riverbank or savings bank? “I banked on the new tires not slipping and banked hard left. I missed the bank building, got control of the car, and came to a stop along on the river bank.”
Only by having other words in the conversation, assuming they are provided, does your mind know how to correctly translate the word “bank” in four different ways.
“I thought I was understanding you.”
There is a translation our mind does when it hears words. Over years our language circuits have been trained to provide meaning to words so quickly we don’t notice all the various meanings or phrases and the emotions they produce.
Mary and her husband John would meet at home at the end of their respective workdays. Sometimes they would go on walks in the neighborhood. Mary, a particularly caring spouse would notice her husband lost in thought, his body stiff with stress and somewhat moody. Wanting to connect with him and give him a place to share she would ask, “What’s wrong?”
Mary considered this a question that showed she cared, was interested in him, and an attempt to help John feel better through communication. For her, this was being a loving partner doing what a loving partner does.
“Nothing,” John would respond and the conversation would stop dead.
What was John actually translating as the message of sounds? No telling exactly but given some patterns of communication men learn through childhood, growing up, relationships, self-image and self-esteem issues, and ego translations here are a few possibilities.
She’s thinks something is wrong with me.
She is judging me.
I feel rejected by my partner.
I should have it all together but she thinks I don’t.
I do not impress her so she doesn’t respect me.
I’m a disappointment to her.
I’ll compensate and project that everything is fine with me and I have worked completely under control. Nothing is wrong.
His response, “Nothing.” And with that, all the problems he was sub-consciously thinking might be going on in his relationship just got solved.
Did all this kind of thinking go on in the background or sub-conscious of his mind before he answered with his ego projected image? There is no way to know for certain with each person, but something like those unconscious beliefs can become activated with such a question. The mind can recognize many patterns and process many bits of data automatically by the time we reach adulthood. Many or more likely most of these will be unconscious to us until we go looking for them.
In this case, a man has learned to project an image of confidence and having things under control to a woman. Yes, it is his wife, but that doesn’t mean he wants to be seen as weak, stressed, worried, or unsure about a situation. If he suspects she is thinking such things then his projected image might go up. Depending on the size of his ego’s belief system he might still be propping up a positive image of himself even if she sees right through it.
Understanding what is being asked
So what is a girl to do if she wants to have an honest conversation with her partner? First, understand that the words and the way they are packaged have different symbolic meanings to the listener. We often speak in a shorthand method and a lot of meaning and context is lost.
What Mary really wants to communicate is:
I notice that you seem preoccupied with thought and seem stressed.
I care about you and want you to feel better.
Is there something you want to talk about and get out of your head and then we can move on and enjoy the rest of our day?
Instead of conveying all these thoughts, our mind bundles them all up into a shorthand question like, “What’s wrong?”
When we use a word like “wrong” we trigger a number of other meanings and possibly emotions associated with the listener. It’s a word that may have been used in past unpleasant emotional experiences. The word “wrong” is then a symbol and can easily trigger those emotional memories and patterns. These unpleasant emotions to the word might not be in his conscious awareness, but it doesn’t stop his mind from making associations and running internal communication and emotion patterns connected to it.
Mary was kind of skeptical that a man would be so emotionally sensitive to just a certain word like that. However, she agreed to experiment with it. The next time John was in a funky mood after work, she asked him open-ended questions instead, “What are you feeling? Or “What are you thinking about?” Mary had to keep her jaw from dropping open as John unloaded about upcoming inspections he was concerned about, personnel problems, and the extra hours he was going to have to put in that would cut into some of their weekend plans. Apparently asking in an open-ended way opened the door to a lot more sharing. When Mary removed the words like “wrong” that labeled the situation there was more freedom for him to describe what he wanted.
Changing one word didn’t solve all of John and Mary’s communication issues, but it sure did make Mary notice which words she chose and the different type of responses she would get. It also got her to realize that little things like word choice and phrasing made a big difference. Over time it was a lot easier to avoid words and phrases that triggered John’s beliefs of being criticized or issues of insecurity and self-esteem that hindered an open conversation.
Asking open questions like, “what do you think about ______,” are a lot less restrictive and help open a channel of communication. Applying adjectives or assumptions that define a person’s experience before they share it with you sometimes pushes the communication door closed. In general, people don’t like to be labeled or their experience defined for them so consider looking for those dynamics in what you communicate and then practice leaving your labels and assumptions and see what happens. What did you mean by that? It’s sometimes hard to know what someone means.
We might have an understanding of the words, but the meaning can be different depending on the tone, emotion, or attitude.
This makes effective communication through emails and writing difficult in relationships. Work information tends to be more matter of fact, but personal relationships are sustained with emotion so those elements matter. More meaning is conveyed verbally because we can use tone, emotion, intonation, and even facial expressions to completely change the meaning.
With an emotion of wonderment and awe, “Why did you do that,?” can be complimentary.
With a curious tone, “Why did you do that,?” is a question.
In a harsh tone, “Why did you do that!” is a criticism or reprimand.
The same five words are used in each case but the messages are very different. The emotion and tone are the real messages and the words are just the wrapper containing the emotional meaning. Some confusion might arise if person A asks the question in one manner, but it is heard by the listener with a different quality of emotion. At that point, the listener responds to something that isn’t asked or said.
Sarcasm is sometimes pseudo humor that reverses the meaning of words. When you tell someone they did a great job with a sarcastic voice you are communicating they did a terrible job. The words provide a compliment but the emotional tone delivers a criticism. This kind of humor is one of the ways we mask our critical judgments and toxic emotions inside a denial wrapper of a joke. Clear communication is difficult enough, and being understood is more challenging. If you want to be heard and understood it will help to match the emotion and tone with the meaning of the words.
Are you understanding? What did you hear?
Even if you package all emotion and tone correctly on your half it doesn’t mean that it is received with the same meanings. Culture has an impact on how things are interpreted. If you grew up in New Jersey perhaps you spoke in a harsh berating way with people you love. If you take that same attitude and tone with people in Denmark or even other places in the US, they might not consider you as friendly.
Not only cultural background but also personal experience plays a role in how we translate what is said to us. If a woman comes from an abusive relationship experience where she was often berated and criticized it will skew her interpretation. A man might ask her, “Why did you do that?” in a curious or kind manner, but she hears criticism and put-downs in those kinds of questions. Her mind has been conditioned to automatically translate certain messages into meanings of criticism regardless of emotional content. This happens so quickly there is no time to consciously think about alternative meanings. In these cases what is called for is a re-conditioning of the emotional responses our mind makes so they aren’t automatic anymore. It also helps to be in an emotionally safe environment so those patterns don’t get reinforced as you are trying to dismantle them. I address this issue of establishing boundaries in more detail in one of the sessions of The Relationship Course.
The Understanding and Listening Half of the Conversation
So while I’ve spent some time explaining how language has lots of opportunities to be misunderstood we need to consider the other half of how you communicate as well. Consider that sometimes you might not understand what the other party is saying. In your mind, you will probably assume to know what they mean. You are confident in your assumption that the meaning you understand is the one that they are attempting to communicate. To help you better understand others notice when you feel confident that you understand what someone is saying. This can happen very fast and we are often unaware of it. We typically rush off to respond as if we understood the other party perfectly. In fact, what we understood perfectly was the meaning we applied to what they said and maybe not what they meant.
To challenge your “I know it all immediately” mind of assumptions, take time to explain what you understood them to say and verify that you understand them.