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. 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

101 Tips for Effective MeetingsDo you spendyour 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? rbrenPHREgKVnGCywqlBEner@ChacopNEeEvpjMQTWtGMoCanyon.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:

The Boott Cotton Mills and Eastern CanalThere Is No Rumor Mill
Rumors about organizational intentions or expectations can depress productivity. Even when they're factually false, rumors can be so powerful that they sometimes produce the results they predict. How can we manage organizational rumors?
Bill Moyers speaking at an event in Phoenix, ArizonaAsking Clarifying Questions
In a job interview, the interviewer asks you a question. You're unsure how to answer. You can blunder ahead, or you can ask a clarifying question. What is a clarifying question, and when is it helpful to ask one?
A foxhunt in VirginiaExasperation Generators: Opaque Metaphors
Most people don't mind going to meetings. They don't even mind coming back from them. It's being in meetings that can be so exasperating. What can we do about this?
"The Thinker," by Auguste RodinThey 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.
A lightning storm over New York CityComfort Zone Discomfort
The phrase "comfort zone" is a metaphor that can distort how we think about situations in which we feel comfortable and confident. Here are four examples illustrating how the metaphor distorts our thinking.

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

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

The Jolly RogerComing August 22: Dealing with Credit Appropriation
Very little is more frustrating than having someone else claim credit for the work you do. Worse, sometimes they blame you if they get into trouble after misusing your results. Here are three tips for dealing with credit appropriation. Available here and by RSS on August 22.
RMS Titanic departing Southampton on April 10, 1912And on August 29: Please Reassure Them
When things go wildly wrong, someone is usually designated to investigate and assess the probability of further trouble. That role can be risky. Here are three guidelines for protecting yourself if that role falls to you. Available here and by RSS on August 29.

Coaching services

I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrenqftxiIkUpExtakSoner@ChacjpgJVCWFGUQfaSZyoCanyon.com or (650) 787-6475, 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

The Power Affect: How We Express Our Personal Power
Many The Power Affect: How We Express Personal Powerpeople 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.

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.
Technical Debt for Policymakers BlogMy blog, Technical Debt for Policymakers, offers resources, insights, and conversations of interest to policymakers who are concerned with managing technical debt within their organizations. Get the millstone of technical debt off the neck of your organization!
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.