Mel Schwartz, LCSW

Are We Really Speaking about the Same Thing?

How often have you felt frustrated in conversations as if you were each talking about a different thing? That’s because you were…

To experience truly effective communication, which rarely occurs, we need to make sure we’re actually talking about the same thing. If you assume that the words or phrases you’re using mean the same thing to both of you, you’re making a mistake – I can assure you. Establishing a shared meaning is essential to have a coherent conversation.

Coherent communication doesn’t require agreement, but simply a shared meaning. We need to know that we are, in fact, talking about the same thing. How often do we pause and thoughtfully ask the other person what he means by the word or words he is using? As I was walking by a restaurant near my home one day and saw a parking attendant with whom I was acquainted, I asked, “How are you?” He smiled and said, “I can’t complain.”

As I continued my walk, a thought occurred to me: he might have meant either that he had nothing to complain about or that he literally wasn’t giving himself permission to complain. On my return home, I ran into him again and genuinely inquired which meaning I should construe. It took quite some time for him to admit that he believed that no one would care to listen to his complaints, so he wouldn’t bother. “I can’t complain” was now clear to me. I explained to him that when I ask, I truly do care and perhaps he might make an exception to his rule. Typically, I wouldn’t have inquired and never would have come to know this side of him.

To pause and ask people what they meant by the words they’ve just spoken is remarkably respectful. Respect comes from the Latin respecere, which means “to look again.” That is precisely what shared meaning demands – looking again at what the other intends in his or her articulation. We need to check in and confirm that we are on the same page.

“We all declare for liberty, but in using the same word we do not all mean the same thing.” Abraham Lincoln

What someone thinks I’ve said is ultimately more important than what I was intending because it can disrupt the entire purpose of the exchange. And, so, I must be thoughtful and selective in my choice of words, increasing the likelihood that I’m understood clearly.

Separate Monologues

We take for granted that our words convey what we intend. In my experience, this assumption is grossly misinformed because most often our words tend not to be received in the way we have in mind. As a therapist who sometimes works with couples, I’m stunned by the impact of this miscommunication. By the time many couples exchange a few sentences, a totally misconstrued interaction often prevails. Neither party is sharing the same conversation; their internal monologues have branched off as they react to a word or phrase in a way that the other party may not have intended. This results in a virtual loss of coherent communication, compounded by the fact that both parties may be totally unaware of this. The miscommunication may elicit further damage; feelings become hurt as an emotional landslide occurs.

What Do You Mean by Intimate?

On more personal levels, the absence of shared meaning can be ruinous. In my first session with Jerry and Diane  a longtime married couple – when I inquired as to how I might help them, Diane, without pause, proclaimed, “He has no idea how to be intimate.” Jerry immediately tightened and shot back, “I have no idea how to be intimate? I have no problem at all with intimacy; it’s you that does.” If I hadn’t intervened, they could have reprised a familiar battle and paid scant attention to my presence. They were deeply entrenched in their right vs. wrong argument, but had never identified what they were truly talking about. This is sadly all too commonplace.

I intervened and said, “I’m not at all sure what you each mean by the word intimacy. Can you each take a moment and inform each other what this word means for you?”

After a noticeable pause, Jerry explained that intimacy for him ranged from physical affection all the way to sexual intercourse. As he was speaking, Diane looked incredulous. “You must be kidding me, that’s not at all what I mean,” she proclaimed. I encouraged her to go further. Not surprisingly, she spoke of sharing deep feelings and thoughts with each other in a safe, nonjudgmental way. Once we exposed this essential misunderstanding, born out of miscommunication, the couple was able to engage in a meaningful exchange of their actual needs and preferences – for what was clearly the first time.

A win-win requires each party to try to meet the other’s needs first, for that ensures that their own needs are attended to as well. What’s good for my partner must in turn be good for me. The quantum principle of inseparability allows us to live by the golden rule. Can you see how reframing our communication into a non-adversarial win-win begins to work?

Sharing meaning is a precursor to a verbally intimate exchange and opens the doorway to genuine dialogue. The couple I just described has begun to move into the art of coherent communicating, which still requires understanding certain nuances. For Jerry to inquire what Diane means by the word intimate would require that she not push his buttons in a reactive and defensive manner and that he respond in a balanced, sensible way. After all, his partner is upset with him. Why not find out what is troubling her?

Win-Win Requires No Winner

In this instance, he could choose not to be right – by attempting to prove her wrong – and try to comprehend what is stirring her emotions. A more considered response might sound like this: “Boy, that feels hurtful. Please tell me what you mean by intimate and why you feel I’m failing you.” That might foster a productive discussion instead of breaking down into yet another meaningless argument. Notice that Jerry suspended his reactivity for the greater purpose of clarity and comprehension.

Of course, the problem lies with Diane as well. To further the possibility of a meaningful exchange, she might have begun like this: “I’m really feeling sad and shut down that you don’t share your more private thoughts and feelings with me. I feel like we’re strangers just going through life together but not truly connecting. Do you feel the same about me?”

Imagine how differently that conversation might flow. Instead of putting him back on his heels and prompting a defensive reaction, she’d be inviting him into a shared inquiry. Shared meaning is the first step in effective communicating and emotional intimacy.

More from Mel…

Podcast 063: The Art of Coherent Communication
Podcast 073: Your Best Chance at a Successful Marriage

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Lesli Doares

Thanks for sharing this. Many arguments stem from the assumption that both people are talking about the same thing. It comes as a complete surprise when they realize they aren’t.

Don Karp

For this problem of miscommunication, I’d suggest RAP, the reflective agreement process.

One person of the couple talks uninterrupted for a minute or two. Then the other person paraphrases what was said. The first person can agree with the paraphrasing, or disagree. If she disagrees, she must offer the statement once again in different words. This cycle continues until the second person “gets it” right. When understanding is achieved, roles reverse and person number two speaks, being paraphrased by number one.

This process is repeated, eventually coming upon a shared agreement about the original misunderstanding, and a written contract as to actions to follow.

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