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:
- Let Me Finish, Please
- We use meetings to exchange information and to explore complex issues. In open discussion, we tend to
interrupt each other. Interruptions can be disruptive, distracting, funny, essential, and frustratingly
common. What can we do to limit interruptions without depriving ourselves of their benefits?
- The 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.
- Shining Some Light on "Going Dark"
- If you're a project manager, and a team member "goes dark" — disappears or refuses to
report how things are going — project risks escalate dramatically. Getting current status becomes
a top priority problem. What can you do?
- Questioning Questions
- In meetings and other workplace discussions, questioning is a common form of conversational contribution.
Questions can be expensive, disruptive, and counterproductive. For most exchanges, there is a better way.
- How to Eliminate Meetings
- Reducing the length and frequency of meetings is the holy grail of organizational science. I've attended
many meetings on this topic, most of which have come to naught. Here are some radical ideas that could
change our lives.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming July 25: Exploiting Functional Fixedness: II
- A cognitive bias called functional fixedness causes difficulty in recognizing new uses for familiar things. It also makes for difficulty in recognizing devious uses of everyday behaviors. Here's Part II of a catalog of deviousness based on functional fixedness. Available here and by RSS on July 25.
- And on August 1: Strategies of Verbal Abusers
- Verbal abuse at work has special properties, because it takes place in an environment in which verbal abuse is supposedly proscribed. Yet verbal abuse does happen at work. Here are three strategies abusers rely on to avoid disciplinary action. Available here and by RSS on August 1.
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- The Power Affect: How We Express Our Personal Power
- 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.