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!