I recently had the dubious opportunity to be an observer in a learning experience regarding the misinterpretation of someone’s intent. Without going into details regarding this observed encounter, I will say that I was an innocent bystander in a discussion where an individual assigned bad intent to a speaker’s words and actions. As an observer, I did not have the same impression of these words and actions.
I called this a learning experience because it caused me to wonder how the offended party could have such a differing conclusion than I. Of course, I then proceeded to analyze and to generate my own conclusions as to the reasons for the difference. I will share this with anyone still reading this.
First I will quote my father, “Every head is a different world.” This means that everyone has a head full of their own judgments, biases, beliefs, quirks, perception of reality, bucket of knowledge, delusions and much more. We all look at everything we see, hear and touch through different colored glasses. It should be a wonder that we can get along at all.
We project our version of the truth, reality, facts and moral code onto the presenting individual. This will certainly cause a mismatch and the ensuing misinterpretation of their intent. Search previous TechNation articles or the Internet for “The Ladder of Inference” for a very interesting description of how we arrive at conclusions.
So when someone projects a group of verbal and nonverbal communication in our direction, it is seldom received and interpreted as intended. Interpretation and assigning of intent is largely based on our own experiences and all the stuff that resides in our head as previously mentioned.
How we assign intent can be based on our present attitude in general and our attitude toward the presenter. We also use past experiences of similar situations to assign meaning and intent. I have written about the science that presents the amygdala in our brain as the gatekeeper of emotions. Its main job is to ascertain if a situation presents a threat and to protect us from it. If we get even a hint that the presenter has bad intentions, we will expand that hint into a threat. The freeze-flee-fight emotional response is brought forward in all threatening situations. We then freeze by not listening any further, flee by extricating ourselves from the situation or fight back with an argument.
I once came across something termed the curse of knowledge. It speaks on the fact that it is very difficult for us to comprehend how someone else does not know what we know. How can they not understand us when we clearly projected the message? This is the other side of this discussion. The person whose intent was misinterpreted cannot believe that the other person got it so wrong.
I quietly observed the two individuals mentioned at the beginning performing the back and forth misinterpretation dance. I was in awe of how each additional bit of information fueled the rising anger and frustration. It was clear that the situation was becoming an accusation sword fight. I used my great and many talents to redirect the discussion to a gentler and kinder form of communication. I pointed out some of the things that I mentioned above. They became confused enough to arrive at a decision to continue their dance once I exited the premises.
Now I will provide some recommendations for avoiding the misinterpretation dance.
Communication is key. Good communication requires active listening as well as a more careful selection of the verbal and nonverbal cues used for the message. Good communication requires that the what, the why and the expected result be clearly communicated. It requires that the receiving individual be given the opportunity to provide feedback. In fact, feedback should be solicited to ensure understanding. One great way to provide feedback is to say, “Wait, I want to make sure I understand.” Then proceed with your interpretation and negotiate together for the truth. Good communication also requires the acceptance of the different worlds in each other’s heads. It requires an acceptance that we each bring a bucketful of impediments to the communication.
One final caution: Sharpen your sword. Just because you are paranoid does not mean they are not out to get you.
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