Have you ever been in the room when two people are arguing about the exact same thing? They are both agreeing, but they don’t know that they are agreeing, because they keep saying the same thing, but in different ways?
That’s most people, most of the time, without even realizing it.
I was working a bingo on Sunday night, fundraising for my son. My job, along with 4 other women and a supervisor, was to walk around and sell various bingo cards to the bingo players.
Every once in a while we’d do a count of certain cards to see how many we had left.
“How many of the black cards do you have?” the supervisor asked Ann. Ann held up the pile. “Oh that’s about 60,” the supervisor estimated, barely needing to glance at the pile before moving on to the next person.
If you’ve never worked a bingo, it can get boring, REALLY boring. You spend 80% of the time hearing bingo numbers monotonously called out every 20 seconds. Naturally, you come up with ways to keep yourself less bored. Ann, mostly out of that boredom, counted her black bingo cards after the supervisor walked away.
“58! 58 exactly! Wow she was so close without even counting! Amazing!” she exclaimed.
Later, I overhead the supervisor talking to the manager. “Did you know she came back and told me there were exactly 58?” I want to describe the tone to you. It wasn’t a neutral tone. It wasn’t a happy tone. It was annoyed and a little hurt. Underneath she was saying, “Who is she to count them? I do this everyday and I’m good at my job.”
Ann must have gone back to the supervisors desk and told her. Ann thought she was praising the supervisor for being so close, but the supervisor didn’t hear that. The supervisor heard that she was wrong – that there were only 58 and not 60 like she had guessed. The supervisor heard Ann telling her that she should be more accurate.
This is how miscommunication happens. We think that people hear what we mean, but they really hear what we say, and then interpret what we mean based on their own filters and perceptions.
There is what Ann said.“There are exactly 58.”
There is what Ann meant.“Wow, I can’t believe you were able to estimate that so closely! You are really good at what you do.”
There is what the supervisor heard.“You weren’t right. There are 58, not 60.”
By the end of the night, Ann and the supervisor weren’t exactly best friends. They were polite, but that’s it. Little miscommunications like this erode our relationships. We start thinking that people don’t like us, or we get annoyed with someone over something that was well intended. The supervisor was thinking that Ann was judging her, so of course she didn’t feel friendly toward Ann. Ann didn’t know why. She just felt not liked.
So what can you do? How can you avoid this in your relationships?
When you feel judged, or annoyed, or hurt by what someone said, break it down into:
What was said.
What was meant.
What the other person thought it meant.
And if someone’s annoyed with you, check in about what they thought it meant and let them know how you meant it.
It’s the little things that make a big difference.
P.S. In our close relationships, we can build intimacy by using this framework and talking about it with the other person. “I felt hurt when you said ________. What did you mean when you said it?” It helps us get to know the other person better, and it helps us to get to know ourselves better.