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Have you ever had someone deliberately misunderstand you?

Actually, they didn’t do it deliberately, they genuinely misunderstood you. People never deliberately misunderstand you.

I’m exaggerating, of course. But chances are, even if someone seems to be deliberately misunderstanding you, they’re probably not. In my 15+ years as a mediator, I’ve seen only a few times where someone deliberately misunderstands the other person.

So if people don’t deliberately misunderstand other people, what the heck is going on?

Why do people misunderstand you?

In my experience as a mediator, there are many reasons why someone might misunderstand you. Here, I’m going to talk about two of those reasons.

1) You and the other person have vastly different worldviews.

One reason you might get the impression that someone is deliberately misunderstanding you, is that you and that other person have vastly different worldviews.

Here’s an example. I was commenting on a post on LinkedIn about gender discrimination. The original post was about how women don’t need mentoring, they need real job advancement and opportunities for promotion, but the discussion evolved to cover a lot of subjects, some related to the original post and some not.

I got into a conversation with this one guy who commented:

‘And the sad reality, is any presentation which indicates that such discrepancies [i.e., discrepancies in advancement, and in the presence of women at the C-level] are “solely” related to ones [sic] sex or race, does a complete and utter disservice to PEOPLE who legitimately, for any reason, are being discriminated against.’

I looked at this and I thought he was saying that there are people who are legitimately – in the sense of “actually” – being discriminated against, but that nobody’s legitimately, i.e. actually, discriminated against solely because of their sex or race.

But I wanted to make sure, so I asked him about it:

‘Are you saying that discrimination against someone solely related to one’s sex or race isn’t legitimate discrimination?’

To give him an example of discrimination solely related to someone’s race, I told him about housing discrimination in Seattle after World War II. It happened lots of other places in the US, but Seattle is where I am and it’s the situation I know the most about.

He started his reply with:

‘That is absolutely not what I said, and I think you already know that.’

to which I replied:

‘No, I didn’t know that wasn’t what you said. I’ve been a mediator for 15 years — never assume people are deliberately misunderstanding you. Most of the time, it’s genuine.’

After a whole bunch of back and forth, here’s what I think he was trying to say: that discrimination doesn’t happen to groups, it happens to individuals. Also, that there’s no such thing as unconscious bias.

Now, I believe that discrimination definitely happens to groups, like for example African-Americans (to choose the group I talked about in my example of housing discrimination in Seattle after World War II). And I know there’s such a thing as unconscious bias; lots of studies have shown that it exists.

But that’s why we weren’t able to understand each other: we had vastly different worldviews.

What’s more, our worldviews were so different that if it wasn’t for my being a mediator, I would have had a hard time believing that such a worldview could actually exist.

The next time you think that someone’s deliberately misunderstanding you, ask yourself if maybe you and the other person have different worldviews. Ask them to say more about their view on whatever it is you’re discussing, and you’ll probably be able to figure it out.

2) The other person misunderstood you seriously.

Another reason you might get the impression that someone is deliberately misunderstanding you, is because what they thought you said is vastly different from what you intended. They seriously misunderstood you.

Here’s an example of that.

This was in a different discussion on LinkedIn. Strangely, it was also about mentoring.

A woman posted:

‘I was mentored by excellent teachers, mostly men because there were few women in my profession, with integrity, respect and trust.

Then a man commented:

‘As women make up over 85% of all roles in the education sector your statement is a sad indictment against your female colleagues?’

I was baffled. I could not imagine how he could have interpreted what she said that way.

So I asked:

‘How is it an indictment of women in education? I’m not following your reasoning there.’

And after some back and forth, I finally figured it out.

Part of the problem was that the man had missed the comma after the word “profession.” So he thought the woman had said “there were few women in my profession with integrity, respect and trust.”

The other part of the problem was that he thought the original poster was talking about her professors, but she was talking about “teachers” in the nonliteral sense.

The final part of the problem was, of course, that just because 85% of all roles in the education sector are filled by women (assuming that’s true), doesn’t mean that 85% of all roles at all levels of education are filled by women. I figured the original poster was talking about college or grad school, in a department like mathematics or engineering – assuming she was talking about education at all.

So in this case, the man just plain misunderstood, and in a big way.

So if you think someone’s deliberately misunderstood you…

The next time you think that someone’s deliberately misunderstanding you, ask yourself if maybe you and the other person have vastly different world views, or if the other person has seriously misunderstood what you aid.

Ask them to talk about how they came to the understanding they did, and you’ll probably be able to figure it out.

Most of the time, no one deliberately misunderstands you.

 

Photo credit: © 2014 angeline veeneman, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

Dealing with the Perfect Storm

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