What Do You Mean?

Have you ever had the experience where you are talking with someone and you think you are being clear and thorough in explaining yourself and at the end of your discussion, the person you are talking to looks at you quizzically and asks, “What do you mean?”

For those readers who have read my book, Understanding Other People: The Five Secrets To Human Behavior, you’ll recall that Secret number 4 is “Don’t Assume I Know What You Mean.” It’s continually surprising to me how often we make assumptions that someone else understands us – and that we understand others.

I was in Florida filming my short segment for The Balancing Act’s authors program. They were asking for an explanation of the communication breakdowns that I write about. I just had to share a story that was told to me on one of the radio show interviews I’ve done. A woman explained how she had created a list for her husband to go to the store. She is a logical thinker so she numbered the list: 1. Bag of flour, 2. Bag of sugar, 3. Salt and on to number 15 which was “Bag of dog food”. Somehow her husband interpreted this list to be numbers, not numbered. He proceeded to purchase 1 bag of flour, 2 bags of sugar, 3 packages of salt and so on up to 15 bags of dog food. When he was dragging in the purchases, his wife couldn’t understand what he was doing.

Of course it’s a funny story but imagine the follow-on to this. She would have been so upset with him for “not paying attention,” or “not understanding” her. He would have been so upset for taking so much of his time shopping for things they didn’t need in his quest to be a good husband! No one wins and both people are left feeling badly over something that was a simple miscommunication.

It’s an extreme example but how many times during the day do we find ourselves either on the end where we don’t understand, or the other side where we are misunderstood? I’ve always been so intrigued at how I can hear one side of a story from a person telling me about someone else who has done something to them. That person is clearly in the wrong. But… then I talk to the other person – the culprit. I always find there are two sides to the story. It’s so often not that anyone is at fault but that assumptions have been made, misunderstandings have taken place and instead of laughing about it, we get mad and frustrated toward the other person.

True understanding takes patience and energy. It requires putting your emotional energy and focus on someone else and opening yourself up to learn what the other person is offering. In our fast-paced, text-frenzied world we don’t often have the time or interest in really paying attention to another person. When we do, we will almost always find that we have learned something about that other person. In some cases we learn something about ourselves too because other people always reflect back something in us.