The Why and How of (Mis)Understanding

misunderstanding image for blog

“I know you think you understand what you thought I said, but I’m not sure you realize that what you heard is not what I meant.”

Alan Greenspan 

How did Alan Greenspan, former head of the Federal Reserve, say something that could come right out of the mouth of an inclusion consultant like me?

His quote could have been used to discuss a core dilemma that we experience when people of different backgrounds (all of us!) attempt to communicate, collaborate, work on teams or work with customers.

We often find ourselves in conflict or working counterproductively based on our misaligned communication.

 Why? There could be a few reasons.

  1. There is a hearing or listening problem involved.
  1. We are in a hurry and need to slow down.
  1. The cause of that broken communication is just plain old human nature.

Let’s dive in on that last one.

We Are Snowflakes


No two snowflakes are the same. And no two people have had the same set of life experiences. We all have had different histories with our families, education and cultural exposure, among other things. Each person’s filtering system in their brain is completely unique. People have different values and biases…different perspectives on what is “good” and “bad.” Some of these things are conscious and some are unconscious.

Anaïs Nin said it beautifully: “We don’t see things are they are; we see them as we are.”

How it Works

So how does Alan Greenspan’s quote relate? Consider these two perspectives:

Sally: I know my intent. I don’t even think twice about it. My thinking process and that voice in my head (my internal dialogue) is so familiar to me that I rarely if ever examine it for accuracy or bias. I don’t question how my point of view was formed. I’m comfortable with “my voice,” and I’m going to express it.

Sally proceeds to speak. And she LETS IT RIP.

How was Sally’s commentary received?

Fred: I felt that. Viscerally. Wow. I can’t believe that Sally would say that to me. She has to KNOW the impact that her words would have on ME! It’s so clear to me that Sally is insensitive or out of touch. Wait, she might even be a ______-ist! Should I go to HR or just avoid her?

Leading With Understanding

In our communications workshops, we teach a few skills that you might find helpful. I gleaned many while working with the wonderful folks at Executive Diversity Services (EDS).

#1: Remember that in most cases “intent” does not equal “impact.”

Very few people come to work each day with the intent to hurt others, to be uncaring or to alienate or put down teammates. The core cultural concept to remember is that likely, harm was not intended.

#2: Whenever possible, state your intent. Do this before you convey your message, advice or feedback.

Example: “Mary, before I deliver this feedback on the project you just completed, let me share my intent: I plan to help you develop even further in your role, and I see you leading many more projects in the future. So please put my feedback into that perspective.”

#3: Remember to assume positive intent.

Whenever something said or done by another “lands” in a way that feels counterproductive or inappropriate, try to avoid the natural human tendency to assume that they are out to get you. There’s something in our primitive brain that tries to protect us from invaders…we also try to protect our ego!  Build an inclusion muscle and assume positive intent. Give them the benefit of the doubt. Ask yourself, “What else might be true about this person to lead them to say or do what they said?”

Example: “Everyone knows that what you just suggested is pretty much the old way of doing things.”

This could be received as, “He’s calling me stupid! Everyone thinks I’m stupid?” But if you assume positive intent, you might think: He likely did NOT wake up this morning with the intention of insulting me. I’ve had many productive and respectful conversations with this person.

Press the PAUSE button and don’t jump to conclusions.

If the episode continues to bother you, try this tip.

#4. Describe, Interpret and Evaluate

This is a powerful feedback tool from my friends at EDS. It’s simple, but not always easy.

Step One: Describe the other person’s behavior in nonjudgmental terms. Describe it as if a video camera recorded the interaction

*Earlier today you said to me, “Everyone knows that what you just suggested is pretty much the old way of doing things.”

Step Two: Invite them to interpret the meaning of what they said.

*Could you help me understand why you said that and what you meant by it?

After they explain, if you need to, share the impact of how their behavior affected you.

*Thanks for your explanation. In the moment, I felt as if you were putting me down. I appreciate you letting me know that wasn’t the case!”

Step Three: If needed, evaluate how you will handle miscommunication in the future. If the situation needs another conversation, set that up.

Diversity and Misunderstandings

The more differences we have between us in terms of culture, gender and orientation, ethnicity and race, age and the rest of our human rainbow, the more chances that YOUR meaning will not land the way you intended according to MY perceptions and understanding. This is not a bad thing. I think it’s amazing, and what makes living in this world so interesting and fun.

So, in summary:

  1. Remember that often Intent≠Impact, especially when diversity is in the mix.
  2. Remember to assume positive intent. Give people the benefit of the doubt unless they’ve proved unworthy of your positive assumptions. (Of course if the behavior keeps coming your way, you have the right to STOP assuming positive intent!)
  3. When in doubt about their intentions, have the courage to give feedback. Most of us would rather DIE than have a difficult conversation! (Get it? DIE: Describe, Interpret, Evaluate.)
  4. Describe their behavior or words/invite their interpretation (share the impact), and evaluate where to go next with the conversation to keep improving the relationship.
  5. During it all … remember to Listen with Ting! (link to Ting Blog)

Let me know if these tips help you!

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