I recently broke out laughing several times during a watching of the movie “Missing Link”. Not the funniest movie I have ever seen, but it definitely had its moments. However, as the movie played on, I started to notice a running theme in the backround revolving around communication and, more importantly, misunderstanding. Misunderstanding between different cultures, different genders, even different species. They all had their moments of misunderstanding or miscommunicating which ultimately led to some awkward situations and tense encounters. At one point, on their journey, two of the main characters Frost and Link had the following interaction.
Frost: “You just leave Adelina to me.”
Link: “Oh, so the two of you were acquainted.”
Frost: “You could say that again.”
Link: “OK. So, the two of you were acquainted.”
Frost, with a smile: “What I mean is Adelina and I were, well, more than just acquaintances.”
Link, looking progressively more enlightened: “Oh. Ooh. Ooooh!”
Link, quickly changing his facial expression: “Wait a second, I said ‘Oh’ like I knew what you were talking about, but I don’t.”
Link: “Never mind.”
Over 30 seconds of conversation. However, very little was said and even less was understood. And in the end, they both just decided it was better to move on. It was easier for them to pretend that the conversation didn’t happen, than to put in the hard work of creating a shared sense of understanding. And isn’t that true in our relationships? Whether it is communicating with significant others, co-workers, or the children and youth we connect, it is easier to just move on rather than putting in the extra work that is needed for clarity.
In his book, Blah, Blah, Blah: What to Do When Words Don’t Work (New York: Penquin Group, 2011), Dan Roam claims, “Using words and using words well are not the same thing. That’s because, wonderful as the technology of language is, it is also our easiest technology to mess up.” And it struck me that even though I feel that I use the words that make sense to me or seem to fit with my understanding of the situation, this doesn’t mean I am using them well. You see, to use words well, I need to find the words, both the meaning and the quantity that offers the best understanding to the listener. This is the purpose of communication, the purpose of words, to create a mutual understanding. For me, this means asking the tough questions like:
“Did I give enough details for my daughters to accomplish their chores today to my satisfaction?”
“Did I verbalize my concerns in a way that my co-workers could understand my perspective?”
“Did I clarify my plans for the weekend well enough that my wife knows what is happening?”
Yes, these questions take more time. Yes, it may require me to repeat myself, slow down, or even stop talking and just listen. And yes, these are all critical to make sure we arrive at a place of mutual understanding. Now don’t get me wrong, this doesn’t always happen, but it probably should. Roam clarifies this need by saying that “all of us like to understand one another. We can’t help it: Our brains are hardwired that way. [Our] brains evolved to take great pleasure in understanding things—especially each other.” Roam goes as far as saying that creating understanding through language impacts our dopamine production and makes us actually, physically feel better. It is that rush of being able to exclaim, “YES! That is exactly what I am talking about!”
What does this mean for us?
Well, for Frost and Link, it meant that they needed to work a little harder on their relationship rather than just focusing on their end goals. They spent a little more time getting to understand each other and listen clearly. And it seems to me that this could be a pretty good start for us as well. Because if you are unable to really appreciate or at least respect on some level, the person that you are communicating with, then you will always have a difficult time understanding them or being understood. So, my challenge for you today is to reflect on one relationship in your life that seems to be struggling with some miscommunication. Then ask yourself how you might work at creating more understanding. Will you need to use different words that connect more with the other person? Should you find an alternative method to audible words to help create understanding such as notes or diagrams? Or will you take a little time to find out what is still confusing for them so that you know what to clarify? Whatever it is, I challenge you to work on finding a way to use your words well to create great understanding through your communication.
Ben Rheinheimer, Self-Efficacy Curator at ULEAD