Every conversation is three

Every conversation is in fact three distinct conversations: what we said, what we meant to say, and what the other person heard and understanding this can help minimize the risk of being misunderstood.

Every conversation is essentially three distinct conversations:

  • What we said, this includes the actual words that we said and our body language when we said it
  • What we meant to say, the message we intended to convey
  • What they heard, the message the listener took away from what we said

Unsurprising, the chances for misunderstanding are many and to a large extent, our feelings are why. I don’t mean to be a proponent of ‘being rational’ as the right thing. Instead, what I’m saying is that it’s a fact that our feelings will impact what we say and what we hear so we might as well prepare for it rather than imagine that it’s something we should seek to ignore.

What we said vs. What we meant to say

In the heat of the moment, it can be difficult to express ourselves as clearly as we hope. And even when we’ve had time to prepare, it can be difficult to find the right words to convey what we’re trying to say. We may be unsure ourselves and struggle conveying that uncertainty accurately. Out of fear of how the person will take our message we may soften our words or leave open for possibilities that we already know are shut. Even pleasant emotions like joy and excitement can lead us astray, ever made promises you couldn’t keep when you were overjoyed?

What we meant to say vs. What they heard

We communicate the way we’ve learnt and this may be completely different to how others communicate. In some cultures directness is valued; and in others, being too direct is considered rude. Differences in style and custom can easily lead to misunderstandings. Our listener’s feelings will also affect how they hear and understand what you say. Their insecurities will very likely lead them to fill in blanks and twist what you say in different ways that will all cause misunderstandings. They may hold on to possibilities that you aren’t actually open too, or the opposite, they may hear that everything is lost when what you’re actually saying is that you want some things need to change.

So what can we do?

Misunderstandings will happen however much you follow the suggestions below, that’s just a fact and something to get okay with. With that said, there are still things you can do to minimize the gap between what you’re intending to say and what the person understands:

  • Prepare: Think-through what you want the person to understand and prepare the most effective way of communicating it. Consider when and where is the optimal time and place for the conversation (but don’t let preparation stop you from moving forward, at some point you just have to go).
  • Consider: Consider how what you say may be understood by the other person and consider whether or not there’s anything you can do differently. Plan for different eventualities. What will you say if they get upset? Angry? Disappointed or don’t understand you?
  • Check: Open up for questions so you can see what they’ve understood and don’t be afraid to check. Better check twice than assume.
  • Continue: Few conversations are one conversation. It’s okay to revisit conversations. Perhaps things were left unsaid or there have been more thoughts that need to be expressed or worked through. Don’t build up to big conversations instead talk often. Shocks are easily avoided by frequent and clear communication.

Feeling misunderstood is both difficult and unpleasant. It’s bound to happen but that doesn’t mean it’s completely unavoidable. Being aware how every conversation is actually three, and not one or two, can be helpful in these situations.

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