Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 10, Issue 48;   December 1, 2010: How to Misunderstand Somebody Else

How to Misunderstand Somebody Else

by

Misunderstandings are commonplace at work, as in most of the rest of Life. At work, they might be even more commonplace, because at work it sometimes seems that people are actually trying to misunderstand. Here's a handy guide for those who want to get better at misunderstanding others.
A New England stone wall

A New England stone wall, one of thousands that even today crisscross the landscape, many still marking property lines. By the time the Americas were discovered by the Europeans, England had long since (by about two centuries) adopted the custom of marking ownership of property by fencing it off, and had forgotten how recently the custom had been adopted. The Indians of North America had no such custom. To them, ownership was a collective relationship between a nation and its territory, rather than a private relationship between an individual and his (or rarely her) property. When the English arrived in what is now New England, they found the land unfenced, and considered it "vacant." They interpreted this situation according to their own worldview, and began dividing up the land among themselves. Indeed, by 1633, the Massachusetts colony had enacted a law asserting that "what lands any of the Indians in this jurisdiction have possessed and improved, by subduing the same, they have a just right unto." In this way, the colonists were interpreting Indian customs according to the colonists' worldview, which is described here as one of the fundamental techniques for misunderstanding others. For more about early colonial legislation regarding Indians, see Dillon, John B., Oddities of colonial legislation in America, 1879. For a study of possession customs, see Patricia Seed, Ceremonies of Possession in Europe's Conquest of the New World, 1492-1640, Cambridge University Press, 1995. Photo courtesy the Image Gallery of the American and New England Studies program of the University of Southern Maine.

Misunderstanding requires just a little effort, and most of us are pretty good at it. Distraction, inattention, and other techniques are widely used and well executed. People are even applying new technologies in their quest to misunderstand. Texting while listening to somebody who's talking, or reading email while on a teleconference are both increasingly popular. There seems to be little anyone could offer to help people become more adept misunderstanders.

But that is so wrong. To really excel at misunderstanding requires more than a little talent and the latest gadgets. To really excel, first master the fundamentals. Only then can you raise your misunderstanding to a high art.

Don't misunderstand me. I don't approve of misunderstanding others, but I believe that by understanding how to do it artfully, we're more likely to notice ourselves engaging in behavior that leads to misunderstandings. And then we're more likely to understand others. Understand?

Here are the fundamentals of misunderstanding as an art form.

You're exactly like me
We tend to assume that people do what they do, say what they say, and believe what they believe, for reasons that match what our own reasons would be if we were doing, saying, or believing the same thing. Those with deep character flaws or evil intentions have their own reasons for behaving the way they do, and, of course, we would never do what they do.
Beware making allowances for anyone else's uniqueness. That only leads to deeper understanding.
I'm scrupulously objective
Other people's interpretations of what's happening around them are shaded by their biases, personal agendas, emotions, limited knowledge, and past experiences.
Always believe that you are objective, and that everyone else is biased or has a hidden agenda that only you can see.
Every pattern I see is real
Sometimes people make meaning of the meaningless. They see patterns and connections that don't really apply.
If you see patterns or connections, don't waffle. When you see something, it's definitely there.
My worldview is correct
When Always believe that you are objective,
and that everyone else is biased
or has a hidden agenda that
only you can see
some people are exposed to ideas or events that, if true, would significantly upset their worldview, they block them out in various ways. They don't hear it or they don't see it, and if that fails, they explain it away as trickery or deceit. If necessary they just deny it.
Whatever you see or hear must fit into your current way of understanding the world, without changing your worldview, no matter how much creativity is required. Use all the powers of your intellect to make things fit. Avoid violence if at all possible.

Most important, since you might get caught misunderstanding, having a plausible explanation at the ready helps smooth things over. If your interpretation is consistent with everything that's been said, you can deflect all responsibility for the misunderstanding onto the other party, because apparently what they said must have been ambiguous. At least, that's my understanding of it. Go to top Top  Next issue: When It's Just Not Your Job  Next Issue

101 Tips for Effective MeetingsDo you spend your days scurrying from meeting to meeting? Do you ever wonder if all these meetings are really necessary? (They aren't) Or whether there isn't some better way to get this work done? (There is) Read 101 Tips for Effective Meetings to learn how to make meetings much more productive and less stressful — and a lot more rare. Order Now!

Your comments are welcome

Would you like to see your comments posted here? rbrenhtKLCcMFSdhxrgjgner@ChacmkTqNskcBzSLUXTToCanyon.comSend me your comments by email, or by Web form.

About Point Lookout

Thank you for reading this article. I hope you enjoyed it and found it useful, and that you'll consider recommending it to a friend.

Point Lookout is a free weekly email newsletter. Browse the archive of past issues. Subscribe for free.

Support Point Lookout by joining the Friends of Point Lookout, as an individual or as an organization.

Do you face a complex interpersonal situation? Send it in, anonymously if you like, and I'll give you my two cents.

Related articles

More articles on Effective Communication at Work:

Henry David ThoreauEncourage Truth Telling
Getting to the truth can be a difficult task for managers. People sometimes withhold, spin, or slant reports, especially when the implications are uncomfortable or threatening. A culture that supports truth telling can be an organization's most valuable asset.
U.S. coinsThe Fine Art of Quibbling
We usually think of quibbling as an innocent swan dive into unnecessary detail, like calculating shares of a lunch check to the nearest cent. In debate about substantive issues, a detour into quibbling can be far more threatening — it can indicate much deeper problems.
Thank You!Appreciations
When we take time to express to others our appreciation for what they do for us, a magical thing happens.
Thor's Hammer, Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah, USAEmail Antics: Part IV
Nearly everyone I know complains that email is a real time waster. Yet much of the problem results from our own actions. Here's Part IV of a little catalog of things we do that help waste our time.
An actual red herringSome Truths About Lies: Part IV
Extended interviews provide multiple opportunities for detecting lies by people intent on deception. Here's Part IV of our little collection of lie detection techniques.

See also Effective Communication at Work and Conflict Management for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

A vizsla in a pose called the play bowComing April 26: Why Dogs Make the Best Teammates
Dogs make great teammates. It's in their constitutions. We can learn a lot from dogs about being good teammates. Available here and by RSS on April 26.
A business meetingAnd on May 3: Start the Meeting with a Check-In
Check-ins give meeting attendees a chance to express satisfaction or surface concerns about how things are going. They're a valuable aid to groups that want to stay on course, or get back on course when needed. Available here and by RSS on May 3.

Coaching services

I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrenvyZGdMDruYeRmWuNner@ChacMqsEWKnrcREPGdKaoCanyon.com or (617) 491-6289, or toll-free in the continental US at (866) 378-5470.

Get the ebook!

Past issues of Point Lookout are available in six ebooks:

Reprinting this article

Are you a writer, editor or publisher on deadline? Are you looking for an article that will get people talking and get compliments flying your way? You can have 500 words in your inbox in one hour. License any article from this Web site. More info

Public seminars

Changing How We Change: The Essence of Agility
MasteChanging How We Change: The Essence of Agilityry of the ability to adapt to unpredictable and changing circumstances is one way of understanding the success of Agile methodologies for product development. Applying the principles of Change Mastery, we can provide the analogous benefits in a larger arena. By exploring strategies and tactics for enhancing both the resilience and adaptability of projects and portfolios, we show why agile methodologies are so powerful, and how to extend them beyond product development to efforts of all kinds. Read more about this program. Here's an upcoming date for this program:

Creating High Performance Virtual Teams
Many Creating High Performance Virtual Teamspeople experience virtual teams as awkward, slow, and sometimes frustrating. Even when most team members hail from the same nation or culture, and even when they all speak the same language, geographic dispersion or the presence of employees from multiple enterprises is often enough to exclude all possibility of high performance. The problem is that we lead, manage, and support virtual teams in ways that are too much like the way we lead, manage, and support co-located teams. In this program, Rick Brenner shows you how to change your approach to leading, managing, and supporting virtual teams to achieve high performance using Simons' Four Spans model of high performance. Read more about this program. Here's an upcoming date for this program:

The Race to the South Pole: Ten Lessons for Project Managers
On 14The Race to the Pole: Ten Lessons for Project Managers December 1911, four men led by Roald Amundsen reached the South Pole. Thirty-five days later, Robert F. Scott and four others followed. Amundsen had won the race to the pole. Amundsen's party returned to base on 26 January 1912. Scott's party perished. As historical drama, why this happened is interesting enough, but to organizational leaders, business analysts, project sponsors, and project managers, the story is fascinating. Lessons abound. Read more about this program. Here's an upcoming date for this program:

Follow Rick

Send email or subscribe to one of my newsletters Follow me at LinkedIn Follow me at Twitter, or share a tweet Follow me at Google+ or share a post Subscribe to RSS feeds Subscribe to RSS feeds
The message of Point Lookout is unique. Help get the message out. Please donate to help keep Point Lookout available for free to everyone.
21st Century Business TravelAre your business trips long chains of stressful misadventures? Have you ever wondered if there's a better way to get from here to there relaxed and refreshed? First class travel is one alternative, but you can do almost as well (without the high costs) if you know the tricks of the masters of 21st-century e-enabled business travel…
Go For It: Sometimes It's Easier If You RunBad boss, long commute, troubling ethical questions, hateful colleague? Learn what we can do when we love the work but not the job.
303 Tips for Virtual and Global TeamsLearn how to make your virtual global team sing.
101 Tips for Managing ChangeAre you managing a change effort that faces rampant cynicism, passive non-cooperation, or maybe even outright revolt?
101 Tips for Effective MeetingsLearn how to make meetings more productive — and more rare.
Exchange your "personal trade secrets" — the tips, tricks and techniques that make you an ace — with other aces, anonymously. Visit the Library of Personal Trade Secrets.