Miscommunicating and Making Assumptions

Isn’t life a series of interactions with others? That being so, it makes getting along with people of primary importance. After all, if our interactions are pleasant, we’ll have a happy life, but if they are filled with conflict, rancor, and resentment we’ll be unhappy. Why do so many people struggle with getting along with others? Two of the many reasons are miscommunicating and making assumptions

1. Miscommunicating

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, “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, stereotyping, and making assumptions. 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. communicating!

2. Making Assumptions

One of the most common terms used by young people to describe others is “loser.” That’s not a description, It’s a label. Some examples of the countless other labels we freely use to “describe” others include fundamentalist, delusional, perfectionist, idealist, realist, extremist, terrorist, Catholic, Jew, Muslim, pessimist, pacifist, narcissistic, optimist, racist, liberal, homophobe, jerk, stupid, pro-life, pro-choice, two-bit punk, and loud-mouth.

The problem with labels is they are merely shells that contain assumptions. When we are taken in by a label, we are taken in by opinions and beliefs. That is, we willingly accept statements without evidence of their validity. The assumptions become stereotypes, which soon become put-downs. Before you know it, we are engaged in name-calling or verbal abuse.

People are complex, multifaceted, and multidimensional. When we apply labels to them, we put on blinders and see only a narrow view of an expansive and complicated human being. Did you ever buy a plastic container or bottle of food at the super market with a huge label on the lid and sides that prevented you from seeing the contents? That’s what the labels we use to ‘describe’ people do, they obscure the contents of the individual.

When speaking about others, there’s nothing wrong with using descriptions. Novelists do it all the time. But there is a big difference between descriptions and labels. For example, think about the difference between saying “Tom is tall.” and “Tom is a liberal.” “Tall” is a description because it is based on a fact; It’s just another way of saying “Tom is six feet, four inches.” When we call Tom a “liberal,” however, we empty the word of meaning. Here’s what I mean. What are you, a liberal, conservative, or other? The answer is on some issues you are liberal and on other issues you are conservative or other. Right? So, how can I describe you by a single term? If I were to do so, I would reduce you to a one-dimensional artifact of the complex person you really are. Wouldn’t that be grossly unfair? Isn’t that good enough reason to avoid the consumption of assumption?

The use of labels is more than unfair. It is hurtful as well. Despite the nursery rhyme about sticks and stones, words can be painful. Take 16 year old Holly, for example. Here’s what she has to say, “I’m kind of shy, so people often label me as stuck up or snobby. It bothers me to see people defame those who can’t help whatever is being said about them. Hopefully, if people see it put into words, they’ll realize how stupid it is to stereotype people they’ve never even met.”

Once we understand the power of words, we will want to do more than avoid using them to diminish others. We will want to use them to encourage and inspire them. Yet, if we don’t remain vigilant, we can inadvertently slip into using labels. Here’s an example taken from my own writing. In the past, I wrote, “Those who make the effort to follow their dream, whatever it is, never regret it. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of the slackers, do-nothings, and loafers, for they will live with regret, disappointment, and sorrow.”

I wanted to forcefully express how regrettable it is that some people do not make the effort to improve their lives. But I didn’t have to resort to name-calling to do so. Instead of writing about “slackers, do-nothings, and loafers,” I could have (and should have) written the sentence as, “Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of those who don’t, for they will live with regret, disappointment, and sorrow.” After all, suppose a reader is stuck in a rut and can’t get out. How would he or she feel about being called a “slacker, do-nothing, or loafer”? Wouldn’t they rather be encouraged than put down? So, if I offended a reader, I apologize. Admittedly, sometimes a little “tough love” may be called for. But the problem is it is far easier to be tough than to be loving.

Why do we resort to or accept the labelling of others? Here are some reasons:

1. It is easier and requires less effort to assume something is true than to look up the facts.
2. If we’re uncertain of the facts, we’d rather go along with others than admit our ignorance.
3. It may be a hollow attempt to raise our stature by trivializing, ridiculing, and demonizing others.
4. It may be due to carelessness and bad habits.
5. We may fear and be suspicious of others.
6. We may lack critical thinking skills.
7. We may have been brought up with prejudice.
8. We may use labels to control others.
9. Whether we agree with them or not, we may accept labels to remain part of the “in” crowd.
10. We may not be assertive enough to come to the defense of others.

Once we understand why we do so, we can work on eliminating the habit of labelling others. Here are some of the things we can do to avoid making assumptions:

1. Cultivating unconditional acceptance, compassion, and understanding.
2. Learn to observe and experience the world without judgement.
3. Remain detached from expectations and demands.
4. Learn to accept what is and people as they are.
5. Grow in humility.

Labels are judgmental. However, like it or not, sometimes we will be called upon to judge others. Perhaps it is in the role of a parent evaluating their daughter’s suitor, a supervisor evaluating an employee, or enemies preparing to negotiate. What then? How can we judge others fairly? If you are to judge and wish to learn the heartfelt feelings of another, don’t listen to what others say about him or her; rather, listen to what he or she says about others. For as Author Jane Porter wrote, “I never yet heard man or woman much abused that I was not inclined to think the better of them, and to transfer the suspicion or dislike to the one who found pleasure in pointing out the defects of another.” Also, never judge the actions of others until you know their motives. In other words, judge them with your heart and mind, not your eyes and ears.

While the emphasis has been on avoiding judging others unfairly, I cannot stress enough the importance of applying the same degree of fairness to ourselves. I know someone a little older than I who believed he was inferior because his education did not go beyond the sixth grade. “I have nothing of value to say because I’m uneducated.” he used to say. He labelled himself as “uneducated.” However, I explained how it was impossible for that to be so because life itself is an education. Fortunately, he no longer hesitates to venture his opinion and we all benefit, for he is wiser than many college grads. Our self-applied labels can bind us or free us. Compare “I am powerless” with “I am enthusiastic and confident.” If you must label yourself, stick to positive ones, but not to the point of becoming arrogant or acting superior.

Finally, not all assumptions are harmful, just negative ones. For instance, I have discovered that if we assume everyone is good, regardless of his or her behavior, we will find that our assumption was correct. After all, goodness is our nature; we are all inclined to be good, and given the chance, we will prove to be so. Strictly speaking, this is not an assumption since it is based on and verified by long experience. On the other hand, if I start out assuming Lawrence is not to be trusted and has malicious intentions, won’t I treat him with contempt? And how will Lawrence respond to my contemptuous behavior? Won’t he react with hostility? So, my assumptions create the reality that I assume to be true. That may be something worth thinking about.