How to Avoid (and Quickly Recover from) Misunderstandings

To be fair to me, I was pretty focused at the time, working in my office on an article. When my wife called my name, I really didn’t want to be interrupted.

We were going away for the weekend and what Eleanor wanted to know was, could I help with the packing? She shouted from the bedroom, raising her voice enough to be heard between the two rooms. I yelled that I was working on deadline.

She yelled back: could I at least pack the shampoo?

Now that just seemed ridiculous to me. She wanted me to get up from my computer, walk over to the bathroom, grab the shampoo bottle, and put it in our suitcase? She was in the bedroom already packing everything. It would take her ten seconds to do it herself.

“Listen,” I shouted, “can’t you just put the shampoo in the bag? It doesn’t seem like a big deal.”

“Fine” she yelled and as soon as I heard the tone of her voice I knew I had made a critical error. I had missed the entire point of her request. I thought it was about packing the shampoo.

Welcome to the land of clumsy communication, misunderstandings, and unnecessary arguments escalated by not paying enough attention.

On one level, Eleanor’s request was about packing the shampoo. But even then, I had misunderstood what she meant. She thought I hadn’t yet packed my own toiletry kit and was asking if, when I did, I could pack some shampoo into a small bottle for the family. A reasonable request.

On another level, Eleanor’s request had nothing to do with the shampoo. It had to do with the fact that Eleanor is always the one who packs for the family and she’s sick of it. She asked me to pack the shampoo because she needed to feel like she wasn’t the only one packing. Like we were in this together. In some ways, she was being generous by asking me to do something as simple as pack the shampoo. She could have asked me to get all the children’s clothes together. She was being sensitive to my deadline. I’d missed that.

And then there’s the final, deeper and more profound, level — a level impossible to reach in a conversation carried out between two rooms. This, she wondered as she was packing, is how she’s using her Princeton education? Her masters degree? Her role as the packer represented, to her in that moment, the failure of equality, women’s rights, and her own decision-making about her work/family choices.

All those things were packed densely inside her request. But I wasn’t really paying attention. Which is reasonable, since I was in the middle of writing.

Which one of us was right? Resist the temptation to take sides. It doesn’t matter who’s right. It only matters how we communicate, connect, and collaborate.

It’s not unusual to miss the real communication going on behind the words. It’s typical. We’re taught to clearly and rationally express our needs, desires, requests, and expectations. And we’re taught to listen carefully. But how often do we either?

Who’s responsible for making the first move to clear up the miscommunication? Whoever sees it first.

And that’s the real challenge. It’s hard to listen to what someone is saying and understand the real need hidden behind the words. How do we know when there’s something deeper and more significant going on?

My clue, after being jolted by her tone, was Eleanor’s words at least. Could I at least pack the shampoo? There’s an edge to that. A sign that something else is going on.

Here’s another clue: if what’s being said doesn’t seem reasonable, chances are, there’s something deeper. Especially if the person is usually reasonable.

So what should you do? Don’t slam the other person for making no sense. Don’t accuse him of being unreasonable. And don’t make the mistake of telling him what he’s really trying to say. All of that will backfire. Instead, even if you think you know what’s going on, ask a question.

Once I thought I figured it out, I was able to go to Eleanor and, after apologizing, ask her if she was feeling all alone in preparing the family to leave for the weekend.

Yes, she told me, she was. And she hates that feeling. I let her know that I understood and appreciated it. And then I got the shampoo.

When someone expresses a request, demand, assertion, or thought that doesn’t seem to make sense, resist the temptation to react. Instead, pause. Ask yourself what’s going on. Ask the other person.

And if it’s an easy thing to do, then consider just doing it. It’s hard to work so closely with colleagues day in and day out. It’s like a marriage. And in the case of remote workers from multiple cultures and countries, it’s like a long-distance cross-cultural marriage.

Making those work is hard. It helps to cut the other person a little slack. Give him the benefit of the doubt. “Be kind,” a common saying goes, “for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.”

The nice thing about that perspective, that compassion, is that it doesn’t just make other people’s lives easier. It makes our own easier too.