That’s not what I meant

By Louise Sproule
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“You look nice today.”
Does that mean I didn’t look nice yesterday?
Or is this a misunderstanding of what the person meant, which was simply: I look nice today.

Misunderstandings are at the heart of many comedies, most comedic theatre and more: different understandings of commonplace things are the lifeblood of stand-up comedians.

But often, misunderstandings are not funny.

It seems like a cruel twist of fate that we are so hell-bent on understanding and yet, it is such a struggle to understand one another.

When we try to understand what someone is saying, we rely on all of the information we have accumulated in our lives up until now.

We judge the person, the information and we surmise intent, imagine motives and render a decision on what has been communicated (even if much of it is based on our own experience and perspective.)

According to communication studies by Albert Mehrabian, tone of voice and body language communicate over 90% of our feelings and attitudes whereas words only transmit 7%. You can read more about this in his book called, “Silent Messages” — A Wealth of Information About Nonverbal Communication (Body Language).

And yet, according to “Mindwise” author Nicholas Epley, the problem with our sixth sense about the minds of others is not that it is horribly flawed. What we surmise about others is more accurate than just random guessing, but our confidence in our ability to guess what others are thinking far outstrips our accuracy.

Thus: we often think we know what others are thinking and what they mean, but maybe, we don’t.

So much of my role in this job: writing stories, ensuring that customers are happy, keeping readers happy and keeping staff happy seems to revolve around making sure that things are understood.

As an only child dwelling in a world of adults, understanding – knowing the details – took over my little brain early on. I still seem to collect information and sometimes I think my tombstone will say: Ask Louise. She will know.

But don’t misunderstand me. I certainly don’t feel as if I understand or know everything. I don’t. But I won’t stop trying.

What I enjoy about the notion of understanding is how one thing can be viewed so differently by different people.

Are you able to put yourself in someone else’s shoes, so that you can understand things from their perspective? Are you able to ask a question in a non-accusatory way?

I can sense that there is a great movement for empathy afoot. Acknowledging that you never know what battle someone is waging . . . finding a way to not take things personally . . . the notion that we cannot change others, but only our own reaction to others . . . all of these oft-dubbed “new age” sentiments are everywhere these days.

In this day of rushed communication, quick exchanges as we conduct business and texts and emails which are short on words, it is easy to get the wrong idea about so many things.

Even our voices can sound impatient, when it isn’t even the person we are addressing who has sparked an impatient reaction.

We move on to the next thing so quickly that sometimes, I feel that we never get the chance to leave the so-called baggage behind. There is no time to reflect, to put something to rest, or to let it go before one is dealing with the next onslaught of work, running errands, taking care of your kids, dealing with a problem or you are returning a phone call, knowing that you do not really have time to talk.

I have not finished thinking about why so many of us move so quickly to misunderstanding or misinterpretation. It tells me that we are expecting the worst and it makes me wonder: why don’t we expect the best?

Because it is hard, I suspect Or maybe: it is hard for some of us and easy for others.

It all depends on where you come from. Literally and figuratively.
But considering that there are other ways to view things is so important to reducing the space between us and eliminating misunderstandings which can lead to so much heartbreak and discord in the world.

I have been contemplating this notion of how we understand each other since listening to a Dakota spiritual elder talk about healing, truth and reconciliation a few weeks ago.

“Yes, I have been judged over the years”, he said. “But when that happens, I think to myself that I have to show that person who I am. Because that person doesn’t know me.”

That generous sentiment, forgiving others if their best efforts to understand us fail them, has stayed with me.

It is in that space between: when one reaches out and the other sees and accepts, that understanding lives.


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