The Nature of Misunderstandings

As my father-in-law used to say, there’s always three sides to the story: your side, my side, and the truth.

I really appreciate the universal truth in that little aphorism. In the event of a misunderstanding, no single perspective is ever absolutely correct. And we all believe that. Until we’re involved in one, right? 😉

I was involved in a misunderstanding last week in which I was the offending party, and it really got me mulling on the construct of misunderstandings. No matter how much we try to avoid them, how considerate we try to be, or how thick we try to make our skin, misunderstandings happen.

I’ve pretty much decided that they’re unavoidable, since no one’s perfect. But I was thinking about what sort of practical things we can do in those situations to make the entire event smoother and less unpleasant. Last week I was the offender, but I’ve also been the offended – I think everyone has been on both sides of that fence – and regardless of which side we happen to be on, there are proactive steps we can take to minimize the repercussions.

For the Offender:

  • Acknowledge and apologize.

This is important, and I think it’s often overlooked. By definition, a misunderstanding is a situation in which the offending party didn’t mean harm. So we mistakenly believe that if we just explain ourselves, they won’t be offended anymore! Well, maybe, but we still need to acknowledge the hurt feelings involved. Even if it’s a mere, “Oh no, I’m so sorry! I didn’t mean it that way at all. Can we sit and talk about it?” that can make a big difference.

  • Ask why instead of looking at what.

If we only look at the words or actions that caused offense, we might be inclined to try to defend ourselves. In and of itself, the offense might not seem worth getting upset over. This can cause a cascading effect where, rather than making an effort to apologize, we actually get angry that the offended person “got upset over nothing.” So instead ask why. Could what you said or did be interpreted in an offensive way, even if that isn’t how you meant it? Are they personally sensitive in a way that you are not? Try putting yourself in their shoes.

  • Above all, be kind.

If the offended person confronted you when upset, they could potentially say some things that upset you. Just breathe, and remember that they are upset. Don’t react rashly. If you need to, take some time before composing a response. Remember that as far as they’re concerned, you drew first blood. Remember how you felt the last time you were offended, and how you acted. We’ve all been there!

For the Offended:

  • Examine the evidence.

Before throwing ourselves into a fury, a moment of reflection might help settle things. Consider the source. Do we generally think of this person as rude and inconsiderate, or are they typically kind to us, and have they been a true friend in the past? Do we have good reason to suspect that they’re being malicious, or is there reasonable evidence based on past experience to suggest that maybe they didn’t mean it that way? If the latter is the case, we might be able to let the whole thing go. If we’re still bothered, simply approaching them and saying, “I was really bothered by something you said (or did), but it doesn’t sound like you. Can we talk about it?” will open the door for calm communication. And maybe the answer is simpler than we thought!

  • Breathe and wait.

If we’re really riled up, it might be in everyone’s best interest if we take a few days before saying anything about it. Sometimes a good night’s rest (or two!) can help us approach the subject much more calmly. Especially in the era of the internet, where messages can be typed and sent with such ease, we tend to write when we’re angry and send it before we read it over. So take some time to think, digest, and compose a message with care.

  • Remember that they will hurt too.

Remember that this person is likely completely unaware that you’re upset, and when you tell them, they may be in for a roller-coaster, too. Remember the last time you offended someone unintentionally. It’s a pretty horrible feeling, as I can recall so vividly. I couldn’t eat dinner the first night and cried for days about it. So while we may have hurt feelings and feel like the only ones who are saddened or insulted by the situation, we should remember that once the person realizes they’ve offended us, they’ll be upset that it happened too. And it will probably hurt them more than we realize, since we’ll be caught up in our own feelings (we’re human, we can’t help it!).

I plan on carrying this around in a note in my phone for a while! Because I know sooner or later I’ll be on one side of this sort of situation, and I’ll probably need a reminder that my side nor their side is the right side. The truth lies somewhere in the middle.


6 thoughts on “The Nature of Misunderstandings

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