Miscommunication occurs so often in our lives – and we are seldom even aware of it. Our spouse makes a sarcastic comment, our friend replies negatively to our request, a family member retorts, “I knew you would be this way.”
In each of these situations we think we have it all figured out. We assume we know what they’re saying, what they meant, or why they’re rejecting us. And yet, I can tell you as a conflict resolution professional, who sees, hears, and experiences these situations every day, the truth is we’re usually wrong. Yes, usually.
Even with my awareness and expertise, I frequently find myself caught in the same reactive behaviors. But, I have a very simple tool I use to help me out of that knee jerk belief. My tool is a question: “What did you mean by that?”
While I advocate for saying this with a calm voice, even using it with an irritated one is helpful, as it invites communication.
Take for example the husband who asks his wife “Honey, are you going to eat all of that?” while looking at her plate. She’s been dieting to lose weight and feels instantly judged and angry. How could he be so insensitive?! Despite her urge to shut down, she instead asks, “What did you mean by that?” He quickly realizes he’s hurt his wife (improved self-awareness for future interactions), and explains, “I thought you wanted to save some of that for your lunch tomorrow.” Now she feels supported, rather than hurt. And they both benefit through better understanding the others reactions/intentions in that moment.
Imagine the possibilities. If you’re presumption is wrong, it gets corrected immediately and you feel better as in the example above. If you’re deduction is correct, it still invites discussion - possibly allowing for you to clear the air on a misunderstanding the other holds about you. Moreover, the question leaves room for you to teach the other person a better way of communicating with you, so that these misunderstandings occur less often.
We operate in fear of these seemingly confrontational discussions, and yet they are liberating. They heal our relationships as they allow for shared understanding to take place. They bring depth back to our often surface-level conversations, and make deeper connections with others possible. They help us to be humble and aware, caring and concerned.
So go ahead, use my tool. Ask the scary question, “What did you mean by that?” And be ready to improve your relationships!