With summer vacation in the rear view and school/work responsibilities ramping back up, I felt it was a good time to discuss a common communication challenge I often see in my practice. Whether between romantic partners, parents and children, siblings or friends, I often hear variations on a theme:
“I didn’t mean for her to take it that way!”
“Why can’t she see that my heart is in the right place?”
“He doesn’t understand how his actions make me feel.”
These types of complaints make a number of assumptions and inferences, but I often find it helpful to focus on the concept of intentions, specifically the idea that they can be both important and unimportant at the same time.
Often, individuals have an imbalance in weighing their perspective more heavily than others. As a result, one may feel that the underlying message was the primary takeaway, regardless of its clarity or delivery style; conversely, one may be unable to infer the meaning of the other person if the message is garbled or emotionally activating. Whichever position is viewed as more important typically depends on which side of the argument one finds himself/herself.
Consider these seven tips to address this communication challenge:
- You need good intentions. Good intentions signify that you are thinking of the other person and not actively trying to be hurtful or neglectful. In that way, they are contributory towards a generally positive overall relationship. Making comments with the goal of hurting the other person sabotages this process and can poison the relationship over time.
- You need trust in the other person’s good intentions. Trust in the relationship allows you to soften your stance more so than in other, less intimate relationships. Recognition that this approach may not work with a boss, coworker or acquaintance is a part of this process. It can provide the opportunity to differentiate the way we interact with people close to us and hold those relationships both more carefully and in higher esteem.
- Neither of those are enough. Holding positive intentions is no guarantee of the other person understanding or agreeing with your position, e.g., “hearing it the way you want them to.” Outcomes and effects also have to matter, even the unintended consequences. Trusting the other person is no guarantee there won’t be errors or carelessness at times.
- Avoid defensiveness. When hurt feelings are endorsed by a loved one, it is important to note that (most likely) your partner is not saying they think you wanted to hurt them. Be aware of the fact that you can hurt the other person: the more intimate the relationship, the easier it is to hurt.
- Hurt is valid. If the other person is hurt by what was said, they are entitled to their feelings. Honoring the other person’s interpretation of what you said is a crucial part of the process. It’s not always a matter of “explaining it better” or “making sure they understand.”
- Give clarification, get clarification. Rephrasing the statements of the other and checking for accuracy is one way to avoid/mitigate assumptions and/or misunderstandings.
The road to hell may be paved with good intentions, but it doesn’t have to be the only destination.