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Our ability attribute meaning to others’ words can be one of the biggest stumbling-blocks in crucial communications.

I’m thinking mainly about professional helping relationships – from Advocates to Therapists (I can’t think of a helping profession that starts with ‘Z’) – but it can equally be applied to any interaction between any two people.

Assume the perspective that every communication has two aspects to it – what is said, and what is inferred. If this is the case, then there’s an unlimited potential for misunderstandings to occur. The problem arises because, on receiving a message, we immediately filter it through our own beliefs and assumptions. In other words, we interpret what we think the message is about, and we give it meaning.

Most of the time this isn’t a problem, but when things are tense, or when we have a particular set of beliefs about what the speaker means, then we colour the message with that meaning.

Information exists independently of meaning. With simple bits of information, this isn’t a problem. When someone says, for example, “I’m going to Lisbon”, “It’s raining today”, or “Entry to the cinema costs £5.00”, we will probably accept the information at face value.

Crucial communications

But if the say “I’m unhappy”, “I need to see you in my office at 3.00”, or “Don’t call us, we’ll call you”, the chances are the listener will provide their own overlay of meaning and start to worry. In which case, it’s the MEANING (not stated but provided by the listener) which triggers the worry. Whatever the information the speaker intends to convey gets overshadowed by the meaning the listener imposes on it.

What happens next is the critical part, when we act in response to the meaning (which we have generated), rather than the information which was sent to us.

The way round this is to listen attentively and to ignore the part of our mind which is telling us what the speaker ‘means’. Treat the communication as information only and you’ll be OK, infuse it with your own meaning, and it can get quite painful.

If you really want to understand what someone is saying, ask them. You might have to work at this, specially if they don’t want to tell you, but that’s a different problem.


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