Sunday, December 29, 2013

Beware of the Assumption of Shared Meaning

A man sees his wife busy in the kitchen and says: "Can I help?".  She says, "Sure, take this bag of potatoes, peel half of them and put 'em in a pot to boil."  The picture above shows what he did.  Now, what happened here? I realize men are likely to have different explanation about this than the women.

Let’s look at some additional statements:
  • You can't ever put too much water on a nuclear reactor 
  • Joe will diet and exercise only if his doctor approves 
  • A woman without her man is nothing 
  • A man without his woman is nothing   
  • I never said you did it
  • Please have your report to me ASAP
  • Clean-up your room nicely
What do all these statements have in common?  I think you’ll quickly see that each of these statements have multiple meanings, and what that meaning is for any particular listener is subject to their way of listening, their own way of interpreting and meaning making.  This is crucial to understand because it’s ones interpretation(s) and meaning making that generates ones emotions and leads to ones actions and the resulting outcomes.

So let’s look further as to what’s going on here.  This happens because when we speak and listen to each other, we assume that we share the same meaning and are operating from the same reality.  More often than not, this is not so.  Thus this is one of the main sources of communication breakdowns (and thus relationship breakdowns). 

What actually happens is that each of us has and continues to build up a “meaning database” based on our interpretations of our past experiences, and this database is activated in our speaking and listening.  And it is this “meaning database” that comprises our reality.  So when we speak, we do so from our own meaning database.  Similarly when we listen, we listen from our own meaning database. 

Furthermore, the meaning of words and gestures is also context specific. Therefore, resulting meaning between the speaker and the listener often is not the same.  As Chalmers Brothers, author of Language and the Pursuit of Happiness says: “He said what he said, she heard what she heard, and they may not be the same”.   Thus it’s no surprise that so many misunderstandings and communication breakdowns occur between people.

So if you have ever found yourself being misunderstood and saying something like “No, no, no, that is not what I meant”, or you yourself having misunderstood another where they said to you “No, no, no that is not what I meant”, there is very good likelihood that you both are operating in different realities and from different meaning databases.

With the above in mind, one of the best ways to ensure everyone is on the same page, a good practice is repeating back to the speaker what you heard and understood and ask if what you understood is what he/she meant.  Checking out your listening by taking such a step will often clear up many misunderstandings and will lead to better and stronger relationships, team work, and outcomes.

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