How often does an argument ensue and hurt feelings result from an exchange of well-intentioned, or even neutral (i.e., information-type) words when, with a little bit of thought, clarification and definition, such misunderstandings, unhappiness and even resentment could easily be avoided?
Example: Pat tells you the party tonight begins at 7:30, “dressy-casual” and it won’t be that crowded. Good thing, especially that last part, because you don’t like crowds.
You arrive at 7:30 on the dot. Pat hasn’t arrived yet, most of the people there are dressed much more formally than you are, and there are a lot more people than you expected. When Pat finally arrives at 7:45, you voice your displeasure.
“Pat, you’re 15 minutes late and I don’t know anyone here, which makes me very uncomfortable. I feel way underdressed. I thought you said ‘dressy-casual.’ And, I would definitely call this a crowd.”
Genuinely surprised and confused, Pat responds, “What are you talking about? I meant ‘around’ 7:30. What’s the big deal? And dressy-casual means more dressy than casual – just not formal. ‘Everyone’ knows that. And you think this is a crowd?”
An exaggerated example, to be sure, but still somewhat typical, right? Both of you are correct and, then again, incorrect…that is, depending upon your viewpoints and belief systems regarding the terms, “7:30”, “dressy-casual” and “crowd.”
Both of you have different meanings for each of those three terms. You know what you mean. And, you naturally assume Pat’s concept/definition of those terms are the same as yours. The same holds true for Pat. In other words, you both believe you are “speaking the same language” but you’re not. And, neither of you knows you are not. You “don’t know that you don’t know.”
Now imagine you need to converse with someone who speaks an entirely different language (not metaphorically such as “Mars and Venus” or “personality profiles” but, again, literally another language). How difficult it would be to get your point across! Universally recognized smiles aside, after that, you’ve still got to be able to communicate the words that will result in the appropriate understanding.
The one advantage here over the previous conversation is that AT LEAST YOU BOTH KNOW you’re not speaking the same language. You “know that you don’t know.”
When you think about it, the first conversation we looked at is actually more dangerous and fraught with more potential confusion. Why? Because we all walk around believing that we’re communicating when, in actuality, we often are not.
The solution, and the way to avoid misunderstanding, is to make sure you “define your terms.” And, make sure the other person does so as well.
Why? Two reasons: first, because when we define our terms, we have clarity – we know what we are saying. Secondly, the other person knows what we are saying. When we insist (politely, of course) that they do the same, we have extra clarity and understanding. And, so do they.
Example: “Pat, just for my own clarification, when you say it won’t be that crowded, about how many people are expected to attend?” or, “I’m just thinking, in case our concepts of dressy-casual are different, what do you see as being appropriate attire?”
(By the way, the phrases “for my own clarification” and “I’m just thinking” are known as “softeners” – polite lead-ins to your question which soften any type of perceived coarseness.)
So, make sure of two things: One, that you define your terms (what do you yourself mean by “7:30, crowded, and dressy-casual”?) and two, know exactly what “Pat” means by “7:30, crowded, and dressy-casual”. When you remember to do this, misunderstandings, which can result in negative feelings, will be much less likely to occur.
We’ll explore this concept further in future articles.