Reality leaves a lot to the imagination.
No, the title of this reflection is not a suggestion but paraphrases a line from the Simon and Garfunkel song, The Boxer. Every time I hear it, I think about context. We don’t live in a vacuum and our words don’t live in a dictionary. Our environment influences our actions and our relationships form the context of what we say as well as hear.
The first pink hues in the sky don’t constitute the whole sunrise nor does the last hint of purple before the sun fully rises. Another example is the story of blind men touching an elephant and drawing very different conclusions about its nature depending on which part of the elephant they were exploring.
For many years, I met with couples locked in the throes of marital problems. Spouses often quoted each other, citing statements their partners had difficulty recognizing as their own. They only heard part of the story. Psychologists have a term for this, selective listening.
Why do we hear only part of what others say? One explanation lies in how we look at life. We tend to pay closer attention to statements which support or radically disagree with our point of view. The rest of the time following a conversation presents more of a challenge. We might lapse into a fog until something relevant sparks our attention.
If we agree with what people say, we compliment them for being right. If we disagree, we berate them for their ignorance. In both cases, we attend better and react more strongly if we consider a statement relevant to our lives and then, as the song says, disregard the rest.
I remember times when I took pains to explain myself carefully only to feel people completely misinterpreted what I said. I thought I should have been clearer in explaining myself. Then I realized they were listening with their ears, mind and experience, not mine. My words registered with them in the context of how they viewed life and not as I viewed it.
So what’s the point of all this? To me, it is a reminder to know my audience and how they are likely to hear what I have to say. Of course, that’s not always possible. I can’t know what other people think, especially before we start talking. My job is to be as clear as possible with my words and listen to their reaction. Then I need to find words which explain what I mean in a way others will understand. We have a choice. We can take insult when others misunderstand us or take responsibility for clarifying what we mean.
- When was the last time you felt misunderstood?
- Did you clarify what you meant or keep insisting you were right?
- Next time, ask your audience what they heard you say.
- Accept that language is tricky and miscommunication is no one’s fault.
- Be patient and try explaining yourself again.
Selection from my book, Navigating Life: Commonsense Reflections for the Voyage. available at Amazon