Husbands and wives separate, friends become estranged, and coworkers refuse to cooperate. What causes these sad developments? More often than not, miscommunication. I have seen good people grow apart because of misunderstanding. They thought they were communicating, but they weren’t. They were talking (arguing may be more accurate). What’s the difference between talking and communicating? Communicating has two parts: talking and listening. The root of the verb “communicate” means to share. How can we share thoughts and feelings unless all parties in the conversation listen with understanding as well as speak? How do we tell our spouses we love them? Not by words, but by LISTENING to what they have to say.
We hear, but we don’t listen. We don’t absorb the points being made. What causes this breakdown in communication? It’s simply because we have different backgrounds, experiences, and histories. The way we view the world and interpret events differs. These differences easily lead to clashes. Once tempers rise, we say what we choose instead of choosing what we say. These quarrels amplify the misunderstanding and further the separation. True, if we share the same ideas, there would be no disagreements, but what a dull world it would be!
The first step toward eliminating misunderstanding is to realize that we are all both different and the same. Because of our different backgrounds, we have different points of view. Yet, we are the same in that we have a need to be understood and appreciated. Knowledge of these simple facts is necessary to end misunderstanding. For as W.E.B. Du Bois wrote, “Herein lies the tragedy of the age: not that men are poor, – all men know something of poverty; not that men are wicked; – who is good? not that men are ignorant, – what is truth? Nay, but that men know so little of men.”
The next time you feel yourself disagreeing with someone, stop and ask yourself how their world view differs from yours. Put yourself in their place. Try to understand where they’re coming from. Always start with the assumption that, like you, they are decent people. When you think you understand (but don’t necessarily agree with) their view, verify and clarify. That is, tell them, “So what you are saying is . . . and what you mean by that is . . .). After going back and forth a few times, you may be surprised to learn you are in complete agreement. The moral is never rush to judgment. Don’t jump to conclusions.
You may understand their point but still disagree with it. If your opinion is different, don’t you want others to respect your right to disagree? Of course you do! How do you get others to respect your beliefs? By respecting theirs! Just tell them, “I cannot say that I agree with you, but I respect your right to have a different opinion.” Often disagreements arise because we focus on the words being used instead of focusing on the speaker. Spicy, hot, cold, rich, poor, liberty, and justice. Although we understand these words, we interpret them differently. So focus not on the words, but the heart of the person. Try to understand the person, not the words. The same advice appears in the Hindu Upanishads (8 ~ 6 centuries BC), “It is not the language but the speaker that we want to understand.”
Occasionally, despite our best efforts, conflicts will develop. If so, there’s no need to despair. After all, conflicts are always opportunities for growth. Use conflicts to learn where you went wrong and make the necessary corrections. As long as we learn from our mistakes, we will continue to move forward. When we seek to understand first and seek to be understood second, we will avoid most problems. Also, when we understand one another, there will be no need for forgiveness. If we wish to avoid misunderstanding and conflict when delivering a message, it should be stated in positive terms. Let’s look at an example of the wrong approach. The Chairperson at a board meeting makes the following announcement.
“To make our meetings more effective and productive, no one will speak until they are recognized by the chair and they will not take more than three minutes to give their opinion. Also, interrupting others will not be tolerated.”
While the Chairperson’s motives may be pure, I’m afraid the members of the board meeting may experience intimidation, frustration, and low morale. These ingredients may lead to conflict, just what the Chairperson is trying to avoid! Notice the difference when we present the statement in a positive light.
“Thank you for coming. We value your opinions and ideas. To make sure I receive your valuable input without interruption, please wait to be recognized before speaking. When called on, take your time and spend as much as three minutes to express your opinion.”
Don’t you agree that rephrasing everything in a positive manner makes a huge difference? In other words, different approaches will lead to different outcomes.
We can almost end misunderstanding if we empty our minds of biases, preconceptions, arrogance, narrow-mindedness, and stereotyping. Remember, too, those we’re speaking with may feel threatened. We can help to dispel such negative feelings by dispensing some kindness. “Constant kindness can accomplish much.” said Albert Schweitzer, “As the sun makes ice melt, kindness causes misunderstanding, mistrust, and hostility to evaporate.” As long as we realize that two monologues do not make a dialogue, and communication does not mean others must agree with us, we should do all right. Happy communicating!