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 seesome 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. Top Next Issue
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More articles on Effective Communication at Work:
- Corrosive Buts
- When we discuss what we care deeply about, and when we differ, the word "but" can lead us
into destructive conflict. Such a little word, yet so corrosive. Why? What can we do instead?
- Selling Uphill: Before and After
- Whether you're a CEO appealing to your Board of Directors, your stockholders or regulators, or a project
champion appealing to a senior manager, you have to "sell uphill" from time to time. Persuading
decision-makers who have some kind of power over us is a challenging task. How can we prepare the way
for success now and in the future?
- Patterns of Everyday Conversation
- Many conversations follow identifiable patterns. Recognizing those patterns, and preparing yourself
to deal with them, can keep you out of trouble and make you more effective and influential.
- Embolalia and Stuff Like That: I
- When we address others, we sometimes use filler — so-called automatic speech or embolalia —
without thinking. Examples are "uh," "um," and "er," but there are more
complex forms, too. Embolalia are usually harmless, if mildly annoying to some. But sometimes they can
- They Just Don't Understand
- When we cannot resolve an issue in open debate, we sometimes try to explain the obstinacy of others.
The explanations we favor can tell us more about ourselves than they do about others.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming January 29: Higher-Velocity Problem Definition
- Typical approaches to shortening time-to-market for new products usually involve accelerating problem solving. Accelerating problem definition can also help. Available here and by RSS on January 29.
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- Much workplace bullying goes unrecognized. Three reasons: (a) conventional definitions of bullying exclude much actual bullying; (b) perpetrators cleverly evade detection; and (c) cognitive biases skew our perceptions so we don't see bullying as bullying. Available here and by RSS on February 5.
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Many people who possess real organizational power have a characteristic demeanor. It's the way they project their presence. I call this the power affect. Some people — call them power pretenders — adopt the power affect well before they attain significant organizational power. Unfortunately for their colleagues, and for their organizations, power pretenders can attain organizational power out of proportion to their merit or abilities. Understanding the power affect is therefore important for anyone who aims to attain power, or anyone who works with power pretenders. Read more about this program.