Monday, August 10, 2015

The Anatomy of a Misunderstanding

I recently had an email exchange with my partner, Susan, where a throwaway line by me accidentally took on meaning I didn't intend and we were off to the races. While we were able to catch it and correct the misunderstanding all within 12 hours, that doesn't mean it wasn't dangerous.

Because misunderstandings are a dime a dozen, I think it's worthwhile to break down how this recent one happened as a cautionary tale, with the idea that the better we understand miscommunication, the better we can minimize or defuse the danger. While all of the factors that I examine below are not necessary ingredients (you can have a misunderstanding with only one being present) they are all usual suspects.

o  The risk of being cute
This is one I'm particularly susceptible to, as I find word play irresistible and I can lose sight of how I'm obscuring meaning in an effort to be clever. 

In this instance, Susan and I were working out some complicated logistics related to a future rendezvous and my "witticism" was to suggest that we may even have time to see the person we were building the rendezvous around. I thought I was lampooning our careful planning, and she thought I was hinting at not being that interested in spending time with others.

As we haven't been together long enough to have patterns to guide us, Susan was concerned about how I might respond to her splitting attention between the host and me, and was thus sensitive to clues about which way the wind was blowing. I was just merrily blowing hot air, oblivious to the concern.

o  The lack of cues in email
With electronic communication (or for that matter, snail mail) we have a tendency to fill in the gaps as if we're having a live, face-to-face conversation. So, if all we have to go on is words, then we tend to fill in the blanks with our imagination, hypothesizing about tone, pacing, and emphasis.

Susan was concerned that I was being snarky (which is in my repertoire), using sarcasm in place of stating a direct preference. While I don't want that to be the way I communicate, the truth is I sometimes do and it wasn't out of line for her to be alert to the possibility.

The important thing here is to understand that we're guessing. If we had the aid of facial expressions, body language, and auditory input we'd know pretty quickly when our projections were off base. Lacking those corroborating clues, we're throwing darts in the dark.

This was a contributing factor because Susan didn't have any way to read my face when she read my email.

o  The dark side of projection
It's relatively common to anticipate what someone's reaction or viewpoint will be to an unfolding situation. It could be simply straight line projection from the way the person reacted the last time something similar occurred, or it may be an educated guess extrapolated from other data. That said, there are many ways this can go off the rails. 

There may be some crucial differences about this situation that causes the person to have a completely different response. Or perhaps the person has done some work on their reactivity and no longer responds the same way. While there's still utility in imagining likely responses, the trick is understanding that those are estimates, not manifest destiny.

Further complicating the matter, you may not be conscious of how your fears or anxieties may undergird your projection and it may have nothing at all to do with the person being projected upon.

While I think it's probably hopeless asking people to stop projecting, you can learn to remember to check it out—because it's only a projection.

o  The importance of surfacing the reaction
Last, it's important to realize the value of sharing the reaction, so that both parties can be singing from the same hymnal. It wasn't going to be as easy (or even possible) for me to work with Susan's reaction unless she shared it with me.

I'm not saying this is always simple to do. For example, the person being projected upon may get huffy about the other person thinking that would be their reaction, or they may get defensive that they were interpreted that way.

In this instance, Susan's sharing her concerns right away was crucial to our being able to back up to where things had gotten wonky and correct the misunderstanding. It turned out that I fully expected that we'd emphasize time with our host and wasn't worried at all about Susan and I enjoying the leftovers. (Whew!)

Of course, it might have been more difficult than that. Susan's projection might have been right, or I might have been outraged that she feared I'd be a problem (I'm not saying that would have been smart, but men do all kinds of stupid things). So you can have sympathy for people who hesitate to voice their reactions, because history has taught them that doesn't always go well. Still, I think you have to do it, for the sake of the relationship. 

Every time you have a reaction and don't share it, you're driving a wedge between you and someone you care about. If left unexamined long enough, projections become reality—and the other person may not even know what pigeonhole they've been assigned to.

I like to think of misunderstandings as weeds in the garden of your relationship. Their occurrence is inevitable, but they aren't that difficult to control if you're regularly cultivating the garden. Left unattended however, the weeds can take over and ruin the garden. If you want a bountiful garden, learn to be a gardener.

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