Misunderstanding happens a lot more often than most of us think. With a wide range of associates, it's inevitable. In addition to her own boss, subordinates and peers, a marketing manager, for example, relates to colleagues in R & D, marketing research, finance and sales, all of whom are vital to her success. Inevitably, conflicts over personnel, resource allocation, timelines and turf surface. Differences of objectives, strategies, measures of success and even values can escalate the emotions. "We have a communication problem" remains a common buzzword for these differences. In a real sense, however, the above relationships are not, strictly speaking, "communication problems." The parties involved understand exactly what's going on and they are effective at communicating their differences, and hopefully, negotiating them. They involve trust and competition, usually over scarce resources of one kind or another.
Candidly, the above differences that we label "communication problems" are neither the most common nor the most personally painful. There are, however, some very common barriers and breakdowns that get in the way of effective relationships that can be even more damaging than the above list. The really damaging barriers are about misunderstanding another person's point of view. Indeed, I've found that that the most common barriers and breakdowns in organizations are about interpersonal misunderstanding.
Misunderstanding is about both sides of my title-parable: what you understood me to say and what I intended you to understand.
How does misunderstanding take place?
The best way to understand these breakdowns is through what is known as "attribution theory" which deals with the ways people interpret observed facts and explain to themselves another person's behavior. Of course, it takes very little thinking to realize that facts can be interpreted in numerous ways. Furthermore, research also shows that once we've created our interpretation, right or wrong, it's very difficult to dislodge. Aaargh!
Let's say you're the manager of a technology team. Noticing that one of your employees seems to be working particularly hard over the past few weeks, you wonder why. You might think his project timelines are causing his behavior. Or maybe he is angling for a raise. Could be that he's attempting to suck up. Maybe he's just bored and wants to keep busy. So you decide he's angling for a raise, but a colleague tells you he's just sucking up. Whatever. You've drawn a highly fallible conclusion based on observable fact. And, in spite of all that's said, once you've decided he's angling for a raise, you'll reject most any other interpretation.
We also make positive attributions. Your might think your employee genuinely wants to see his team succeed. Or perhaps, you decide, you've just never realized what a hard worker this guy is. It's the negative attributions, not the positive, that cause interpersonal breakdowns.
Those dangerous assumptions.
People draw their conclusions both from the work context as well as past history with a person when they come up with interpretations. But. . . underlying those interpretations are just a few basic assumptions that drive most of them (I prefer "inferences" even though "interpretation" is the more familiar. Getting used to the term "inferences" will support some other cool problem solving skills.) Anyway, these wrongheaded assumptions cause us to flare up, get disgusted, get angry and frustrated, be ashamed or even walk away for another day--or week. Some families have had major breakups merely because members interpreted the behavior of another using one of these assumptions.
Thankfully, attribution theory provides us with a lot of insight into human relationships and communication. Here are three recurring and dangerous assumptions:
The other person perceives the situation the same way I do. Coincidentally, I led the first of many training sessions with a management team yesterday. I thought it was a great job. However, understanding that the manager might not perceive the situation the same way, I checked it out with her and one of the team members. They both interpreted the situation the same way, but there have been situations where my perception was different than others, causing me to screw up or make needed changes. Of course, sometimes I fail to check out my perception and remain in the dark. Not too smart.
A person's behavior is fundamentally logical (rational). This widely held assumption has taken a bad hit with the recession, and it's about time. Treasury Secretary Greenspan, along with a huge majority of investors, believed firmly that market decisions are fundamentally rational. Game theory, which underlies much economics, stresses rational decision making. It assumes that a player makes choices that lead to rewards or punishments based on the moves of others. It was assumed that most mortgage buyers, based on their incomes, would make rational decisions, and that financial managers would protect themselves from overloading on risk. Fat chance of that. Emotions and drives (greed, fear, desire, sex) play a huge role in decision making. Sure, behaviors may have some tendencies to reason, but they aren't the full picture by a long shot.
The other person is experiencing or ought to experience the same feelings I do. Failure to finish a project on time may drive me nuts with frustration, but the other team member, who knows as much as I about the timelines, may not be bothered in the slightest. What causes great stress in one may cause delight in another. However, when you find yourself in a frustrating or very happy situation at work, you may believe that everyone else is experiencing the same feelings. Some are very risk-oriented, others not at all. Some easily embarassed, others rarely. Some highly motivated by a situation, others frustrated by the same situation. You get PO'd by a person's performance, but she moves happily along. What'll be the response if you think a lot's at stake and she doesn't? Fireworks?
Our human tendency to judge and evaluate.
I believe it was Carl Rogers, the eminent psychologist of the last century, who taught that the major barrier to communication and relationships is our very human tendency to judge people. We approve of them when our interpretation of their behavior matches our assumptions of how they should act. If, for example my team mate says he's feeling crappy, knows I've got a tough timeline, but digs in and goes to work instead of giving in to his feelings and going home three hours early, I'm going to evaluate him very positively. But if he'd gone home early, I'd have judged his behavior and called him irresponsible. We all approve or disapprove of others' behavior very quickly and it can temper our relationships for good or ill?
What can you do?
The starting place is to keep these assumptions in your front lobes and realize they are just inferences, not facts. All three surface regularly, but my suspicion is that the first--believing the other person perceives the situation the same way I do--is the most common.
It's usually recommended that we try to shift our emphasis from ourselves to the other person's frame of reference. That'll work, but there's a simpler way. I've learned to put my inferences under immediate suspicion. And if, in a conversation, someone else shares a negative inference, my antennae go up immediately.
When the inference is strategically important, I challenge it: "That's an interesting inference. What other ways could you interpret his or her behavior?" I regularly push myself and others to realize that there are a number of ways to interpret a person's behavior. In effect I have a conversation with myself and with others that basically says, "Oh, just cool it. Watch your inferences."
Second, we really don't know what a behavior means unless we ask the person. If it's a stressful situation, the person may or may not give you the straight skinny. If it's stressful to her, she may just fudge or give you the brush-off, not wanting to deal with you.
Third, when I'm fatigued or highly stressed, I've learned to take myself out of the situation. Whatever conclusions I draw won't be trustworthy. Fatigue clouds my brain and leads to my asshole behaviors.
It's all part of being very human, so watch it.