By Ken Larsen
Staying connected to people we care about is important to our mental health and happiness. Lucy Robbins sent me an article a while back by a couple’s therapist. He had found that most conflicts in relationships were the result of misunderstanding.
At a party recently I had an interesting conversation with a friend. He’s a personal injury attorney and we were talking about how our perceptions of what we say to one another shape the quality of the relationships we enjoy. One item struck me in our conversation. Often our perceptions are based on what we thought we understood the other person to be saying. We listen, we interpret, we categorize and then we relate to the other based on that interpretation of what we thought we heard them say. My friend described a situation where an otherwise cordial relationship had become strained and he didn’t understand why. Finally, after several months, he decided to talk to this other person and try to correct whatever had caused the rift. Sure enough, it had been something he said that caused a distancing from the other person. He then asked for forgiveness and emphasized that his intentions were not what the other person had thought he said. They worked it out so that the offended party realized she had heard something that had not been said. The relationship was repaired and they were both happy that they had taken the time to reconcile the rift.
At that point my friend and I agreed that it would be a good practice to simply take a critical conversation one step further before a problem arises. Something like, “Hmmm, you’re saying that…” giving the other person a chance to say, “Yes, that’s what I meant” or “oops, that isn’t quite what I was saying. Let me put it this way…”
We went on to agree that we have a responsibility to check the meaning I receive against the meaning that was sent by the other to be sure they are a close match. The more we can avoid the distressing misunderstandings that strain and break relationships, the more we can enjoy the happiness that comes from understanding and being understood in our connections.
Words don’t have meaning. People have meaning.