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

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. (Order from Amazon.com.) This stone wall is at Weir Farm National Historical Site in Connecticut, U.S. Photo courtesy U.S. National Park Service.

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

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

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

A possibly difficult choiceComing April 21: Choice-Supportive Bias
Choice-supportive bias is a cognitive bias that causes us to evaluate our past choices as more fitting than they actually were. The erroneous judgments it produces can be especially costly to organizations interested in improving decision processes. Available here and by RSS on April 21.
Two people engaged in pair collaborationAnd on April 28: The Self-Explanation Effect
In the learning context, self-explanation is the act of explaining to oneself what one is learning. Self-explanation has been shown to increase the rate of acquiring mastery. The mystery is why we don't structure knowledge work to exploit this phenomenon. Available here and by RSS on April 28.

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