See why even bright, friendly people misunderstand you

Remember the last time you were misunderstood? I can tell you exactly why it happened.

But first, a story.

Tricia on a walk

I’d finished an episode of the Truth and Justice podcast earlier on my walk, and was approaching home when I saw my neighbor Ron in his driveway.

Ron and I live two doors down from one another. He’s a smart, friendly guy and we and pretty much converse about the neighborly basics: greetings, weather, and comments about whatever the other one is doing outside. I also frequently share that I envy his neat-as-a-pin, no-crumbs-on-the-floor garage.

Since mine looks nothing like that.

Today, Ron was talking with another neighbor whom I didn’t know; she apparently lives a couple blocks away. I said hello, and joined their chit-chat.

The three of us awed at the towering tree that had gone from green to bright red. The two of them explained how they’d been neighbors in a whole different neighborhood prior to this one. Ron also casually mentioned he’d cut off the tip of his thumb while re-flooring his bathroom this week.

Fall in Colorado Springs

This is a side note, but have you ever noticed how nonchalant farmers, mechanics, and factory workers are about loss of limbs? Ron was retired military. From around the Korean War era, if I had to guess. And he was just as nonchalant about it as any missing-thumbed farmer I’d ever met.

After covering the basics, the conversation turned to the hot gossip topic of the summer.

The wasps.

There had been hoards of them over the summer. I’m not kidding.

Those slender, butt-dragging hoverers had taken over our neighborhood this summer. They were a total nuisance.

The neighbor from down the street hadn’t had much of a problem with them, which apparently was Ron’s cue to highlight exactly how bad things had been in our neck of the woods.

“She — you (pointing at me) — even had them in your house. Five of them? How many?”

“Yep,” I confirmed, “there were six that got inside.”

Further emphasizing his point he gestured toward me again, “And she even got stung by one!”

I nodded, “Yep, I sure did. Right here,” I said pointing to my eyebrow.

The woman gasped. I hadn’t thought it was that strange to get stung by a wasp, considering the thousands that had been flying around. But she looked troubled.

Then — Ron said something interesting.

“I used to see her (nodding in my direction) out walking every day when I’d ride my bike, but after that (getting stung), I didn’t see her outside anymore.”

For a half second I stood there confused, followed by a “Well, I’ll be!” realization.

Ron thought I’d stopped walking because I got stung by the wasp! This wasn’t true, but that hadn’t stopped him from believing and sharing the flawed conclusion.

And how did he arrive at this misunderstanding?

The answer: He took precisely two steps. The first yielded safe footing, and the second landed him in a bear trap. It’s the exact same bear trap that every person who’s ever misunderstood you also walked into.

Ron’s first step — the accurate one — was his observation. “I have not seen Trish out walking since she was stung by the wasp.” True! He indeed had not seen me out walking much — or maybe at all — since I’d gotten stung. An accurate observation.

This first step — the observation — is what people get right almost all of the time. It’s the stuff we see or hear, so it’s pretty hard to mess up.

The second step — the one that landed Ron in the bear trap — was his interpretation of what he had observed. He had concluded, “Trish is not going walking because she’s avoiding the wasps.”

(Game show buzzer sound) False.

Think of a time you were misunderstood. This is why it happened. The person’s interpretation was wrong.

You see, there’s only so much information our sight and hearing can get us, and it’s pretty boring.

Because it’s the why that interests us. Why is meaningful. Why is interesting. Why people do stuff is like a mystery. And we want to fill in the blanks to solve that mystery.

But sometimes we rush to decipher the mystery.

The actual reason my neighbor hadn’t seen me out walking when he was out riding his bike shortly after my wasp-sting incident was threefold.

One, prior to my getting stung by the wasp — an incident I shall heretofore refer to as The Sting — Ron and I had crossed paths during his bike ride and my walk about three times over the course of two months. Not very frequently if you ask me.

Two, I’d changed my walking time. It was the middle of summer and hot, so I started hoofing it out the door an hour earlier than I had in the spring and early summer.

Three, mid-summer, I had a virus that lasted six weeks. At that time, I no longer walked daily, but “when I had the energy”. More like two days a week. Three if I was lucky.

So to summarize — we’d not crossed paths very frequently before The Sting. At the time of The Sting, I was outside far less because of the virus. And, when I did go for a walk, it was at a different time than earlier in the summer during those few times I’d seen Ron on his bike.

Of course Ron hadn’t seen me during his bike rides!

To be fair, he didn’t know about the virus or that I was taking walks earlier in the morning.

But when we don’t know the reason behind why a person does something, it’s best to pause, ponder, and conclude, “I’m not sure why he did that.” “I wonder why she said that.” Because rushing to solve the why mystery after making our observations? Well, that’s the precise moment we step into the bear trap.

What Ron Could Have Done

Ron could have concluded, “I haven’t seen that neighbor lady (I don’t think he remembers my name) since mid-summer, around the time she was stung by the wasp. Huh.”

Instead of assuming he knew why we hadn’t run into each other since The Sting, Ron could have followed up his “Huh” pondering possibilities as to why that was.

  • “Maybe she joined a gym.”
  • “Maybe she’s doing something other than walking for exercise.”
  • “Maybe we’re out exercising at different times.”
  • “Maybe she’s not going outside anymore because of the wasps.”
  • “Maybe it’s not that odd that I haven’t seen her lately; I didn’t see her that much to begin with.”
  • “Maybe she drives to walk at an indoor location since it’s hot out now.”
  • “Maybe she doesn’t walk in the summer.”
  • “Maybe something came up that precludes her from walking — work, health, travels, etc.”

But instead of holding out possibilities as, well, possibilities, Ron landed on one. And concluded “that’s why I haven’t seen her!”

Now, I don’t doubt for a second that the misunderstanding was entirely unintentional.

And in all candor, being misunderstood in this situation wasn’t a big deal to me.

But sometimes it is a big deal.

What You Can Do About It

If you’ve been misunderstood and it is a bigger deal to you, here are three simple steps you can take to clarify the why behind what you said or did.

1) Ask a question to see if you understand what the person’s saying.

In the example with my neighbor, he had said,“I used to see her (nodding in my direction) out walking every day when I’d ride my bike, but after that (getting stung), I didn’t see her outside anymore.”

The question I could have asked: “So you think the reason you haven’t seen me walking when you’re riding your bike is because I’m afraid of the wasps?”

At this point, the person will confirm or deny that what you say is what they are saying, or will make adjustments to your understanding.

For example, Ron could have responded: “Exactly!” or, “Well, isn’t that why you haven’t been out?” or, “No, that’s not what I’m saying.” or, “Not that you’re afraid of the wasps, but you don’t want to get stung again!”

2) If the person adds new information, state what you understand them to be saying. Be sure to add in the new information they’ve given you.

When you do this, say it as they see it. Even if it’s wrong.

Example: “Oh, I see. It wasn’t that I was afraid of the wasps, I was just trying to not get stung again.” (They’ll likely confirm, since you’re merely re-stating what they just said).

If the person doesn’t add any new information, and confirm what you’ve said, go to #3.

If they deny it or look at you like you’re crazy, check in again with something like, “Oh, I must not have heard you right. You were saying you hadn’t seen me out walking because…?”

3) Say your real why.

Now that you have an accurate understanding what the person thinks is the “why” behind what you did, it’s time to kindly state the real reason you did what you did.

Example: “Huh, I can totally see how it might look like that (smile, nod, or laugh if appropriate). But actually, it wasn’t that I was concerned about getting stung. I had a virus half the summer! So I wasn’t out much the whole month of July. And, I’ve been walking earlier. Maybe that’s why you haven’t seen me out walking so much.”

Hopefully, the person believes you, and the misunderstanding is finito! If, for whatever reason, they don’t believe you, there’s not much more you can do. You can’t force someone to think differently than they do.

Wrapping It Up

Like I said, Ron’s a smart guy, and the misunderstanding was likely just an unintentional mistake.

Just as unintentional, probably, as when bright people like you or I jump the gun to solve the mystery about why someone did what they did or said what they said!

More on what you need to know about why we (as in, you and I) misunderstand and how to get our misinterpretations corrected — on the next post!

An Over-the-Counter Antidepressant from God

Like every other day, today I went on a walk. A predictably enjoyable ritual. Today, however, rather than my normal music, audiobook, podcast, or audio sermon listen, I opted for quietness and reviewing some Bible verses I’d written down on cards and memorized mostly a long time ago.

One oldie but goodie sustained my attention a good mile and a half. An over-the-counter antidepressant from God.

Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise – think about these things. *

So. many. glimmers. In this one little gem.

Here are two of the brightest.

The Glimmer of the Olympic Brothers

“Think about things that are honorable…”

The 2014 Olympic brothers. Remember them? I do. Alex, the first Canadian two time gold medalist for freestyle skiing, and his brother, Frederic. The Bilodeau brothers took a world watching the most renowned skiing competition, and unveiled something even more desirable than the Olympic gold.

Honor.

Frederick celebrated his brother’s gold win with more exuberance and selfless abandon than I’ve ever seen from an Olympian’s family member. Though Frederick’s cerebral palsy prevented his own body from ever having the chance at an Olympic medal, he championed Alex each step of the way. All the way to the gold.

That, right there, is honor.

Alex’s body, on the other hand, was capable of training for the Olympics. In interviews with the press, however, he acknowledged that his brother Frederick’s stamina and willpower exceeded his own. Frederick’s determination, Alex said, often fueled him through the grind of daily practices.

“If he wouldn’t be handicapped, he would probably be a three-time Olympic champion,” Alex said. “He’s got that motivation.”

That too, is honor.

What stuck with me most about their story was how each of the brothers embraced his own skills and abilities – living his life out fully – while also celebrating the other one living out his life out to full capacity.

The Glimmer of the Garbage Truck Driver Rockstar

On my walks I often pass a large daycare that looks like a school building. One day a group of about eight children — two or three years old — ran towards the chainlink fence yelling…. cheering! When they got to the fence, they stood in a row, each with fingers curling around one diamond of the fence.

What’s going on? What are they so excited about?

Photo by Tracy Friesen

Photo by Tracy Friesen

I looked in the direction of the eight children’s gazes and shouts. There was a garbage truck in the street a half block away.

The driver stopped at each house, collected the garbage, then went to the next house and did the same thing. The truck got closer to the playground with each stop, and the cheers grew louder.

Then came the pinnacle moment.

Just as the truck passed the children, the driver waved and gave a loud HONK! Cheers, jumping, and clapping from behind the chainlink fence erupted. The children had been to a rock concert, and the rock star had just ended the show with a final downstroke of his famous guitar riff.

In that moment the rockstar garbage truck driver honored his adoring fans with the honk of acknowledgement, and they honored him with their cheers.

(I later witnessed the same thing a second and third time, and realized this was weekly ritual between the rockstar and his fans!)

On the Path to Feeling Good

What if we thought more about things that are honorable (or true, or gracious, or anything else from the list) rather than the rude comment that person made, the thing our spouse forgot to do, or how we think our colleague is judging us?

Research says we’d be less depressed.

The Bible says we’d be doing something pleasing to God.

Thus, I raise a glass and propose an experiment!

Today —
during the times when we’re driving, walking into our office, using the restroom, washing the dishes, or buckling and unbuckling kids’ seat belts —

during our mind’s downtime today, let’s intentionally change the channel our thoughts are on, and pick one thing from the list to chew on.

Let’s think about the trees’ color today. How deep God’s wisdom is. Grandma’s infectious laugh. Forgiveness you don’t have to work for. Good dinner conversations with family. The Truth and Justice podcast, with Bob’s good-natured demeanor and fair investigations. Frederick and Alex Bilodeau. The Rockstar garbage truck driver getting cheers. The daycare kids getting a honk and a wave.

What can you think of today?

What’s true or honorable that you can think about?


  • Philippians 4:8

If She Wants to Get Together (and You Don’t): The Thinking Part

Back to that scenario from Journal Entry No. 1.

“If she wants to get together, let her spend the energy.”

If even employing a neutral tone to that statement sounds terribly rude to someone, I think there’s a likely indication of some co-dependency or over-functioning at play. Cuz it’s a version of taking responsibility for someone else’s wants/desires. With, ahem, you doing the work to get them what they want.

(Keeping in mind, the scenario is with someone you don’t really want to get together with).

Throughout my life, I’ve had more than my fair share of co-dependent type behaviors, so I’m familiar with the wince that can go on with expecting someone to do their own work. Especially if they expect you to do their work for them.

Funny, I have no problem adopting the mindset of “If you want something, don’t make others do your work for you” when thinking about myself.

Of course.

But when it comes to others…expecting them to do their own work for something they want? That can be a little tougher. At least in some situations. But like I said, I’ve had a history of some of that co-dependency thing goin’ on, so, yeah.

Here’s the thing:

Assuming the best about the person’s motives (“she thinks it’d be fun to get together cuz we like each other”) rather than the worst (“she’s impinging on the little free time I have, and wants me to do all the work”) is what’s key for me. It erases criticism.

Then you have a great equation:

0 criticism + 0 over-functioning + best assumption about the person’s motives + letting them do their own work = Healthy, Happy You

(And probably a happy, healthy them too). Maybe. Maybe not.

On a different but related topic, when some people say, “let’s get together” it really means, “I like you.” Or, “This was fun.” Or, “It would be nice — in theory — to get together, but honestly I’m probably not going to make it happen.’”

Other people — this would be my friend and me — actually take “let’s get together” to mean “let’s get together.”

But the literal vs. figurative meaning of “let’s get together” isn’t the problem though.

The problem is feeling responsible to make someone else’s desires happen. The whole over-functioning thing.

“Sounds good! Give me a call.”

If She Wants to Get Together, Let Her Spend the Energy.

I was talking with a friend from out of town last week, who has the exact opposite problem as I do here in SD.

Too many friends.

And when you’ve got a lot of friends and feel pressed for time, you start guarding your time so as to not get too thinned out. Plus, she’s an introvert with three kids, with a limited amount of “let’s do coffee” time.

She recounted an incident from the previous week. “I was heading out after Bible study, and Sarah — she’s more of an acquaintance — yells from across the parking lot, ‘We should do coffee sometime!’

“And I’m like, ‘yeah, sounds good,’ but I really don’t want to get together. Sarah’s a fine gal — great gal — but now I need to call her and schedule a play date. But I’m feeling bad because I’m trying to be intentional about spending time with Rachel, and am hardly keeping up with that relationship.”

I knew what would help my friend easily rectify most future situations like this. I spend a lot of time helping people with complex issues in the therapy setting, so I love it when the solution is easy.

“Next time, just say, ‘Sure, give me a call’ or ‘Shoot me an email.’ Eighty percent of the time, the person won’t get in touch.”

“Really?”

“Yeah. I’ve started doing it myself if I don’t really want to get together. Because I think some people say ‘let’s get together’ but what it really means is, ‘I like you,’ or ‘This was fun,’ or ‘It would be nice — in theory — to get together.'”

I continued, “But people like you and me actually take ‘let’s get together’ to mean ‘let’s get together,’ then we feel responsible to make it happen. Plus, getting together for the first time takes some oomph to set in motion a body (relationship) that’s not already in motion. Seriously: a) You’ve got to remember during your ordinary week that you want to get together with this person who’s not in your normal schedule. b) You’ve got to locate their contact info (sounds easy, but can be more of a barrier than you might think). c) You’ve got to figure out a proposed time and activity that fits with your schedule. d) You’ve got to initiate the contact.”

I concluded, “If she wants to get together, let her gather the energy to do the reach out.”

Which by the way, isn’t rude. (And if it does sounds rude, you might want to consider the role co-dependency or over-functioning might possibly be playing in your life. Like where you take on other people’s wants and desires, and do the hard work to get them what they want).

I can have some of these co-dependent type of tendencies sometimes. It’ll be like, “Well, he wants to feel like this was an enjoyable conversation, so I’ve got to make it look like I’m having a good time (when I’m not).”

Funny, I have no problem adopting the mindset of “If you want something, don’t make others do your work for you” for myself. Seems right. Helpful reminder. When it comes to others, however, allowing them to do their own work for something they want? That can be a little tougher. But like I said, I’ve got a little of that co-dependency thing goin’ on, so that makes sense.

I’ve seen those very words — “Don’t make others do your work for you” — used by the moderator of a networking group I’m in. In that context, it translates to, if you want to know the best thing to put on your “about page” don’t ask the group, “Hey guys, what do you recommend for what to put on my ‘about page’?” Do your own research first. There are tons of articles online. Plus, it’s probably been talked about in the group at an earlier date. Find that conversation. Spend the time. Do the work. After you’ve done your own work first, then if you still have a question, ask.

For me, it’s “assuming the best” about a person combined with letting them do their own work that’s a winning combo.

Assuming the best about a person without allowing her to do her own work means that although you’ll be free of criticism (“she just thinks it’d be fun to get together”), you’ll still be overfunctioning.

Expecting a person to do his own work while assuming bad motives (“he’s just lazy and wants me to do all the work”) means you won’t be over-functioning, but you’ll likely have a critical regard toward them.