“It’s Not What You Think You Said.  It’s What I Heard.”
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“It’s Not What You Think You Said. It’s What I Heard.” • Posted: Oct 23, 2021 12:38:33Comments WelcomeVote CoolPhotoblogsPurchase a PrintShare

Communication is hard. And, by my experience, it doesn’t get any easier the farther along one gets in life. Interestingly, communication actually seems easiest when two people meet for the first time. Both seem to acknowledge that having no history with each other means that care must be taken to not misunderstand what the other is trying to say. Whereas, between two parties who know each other, have a history with each other, especially if communication has at times been contentious, things often get more and more difficult until there appears to be no other practical solution than to break off communications altogether. Ever see two married people sitting opposite each other in a restaurant, both with dour faces and almost nothing to say to each other, neither willing to risk initiating yet another communication flare-up? That’s what I’m talking about.

I once put a hand on a young black man’s shoulder, hoping to indicate sympathetic understanding for his current troubles and to reassure him I was on his side in the matter. Unfortunately, he jerked his shoulder away, saying “Don’t you touch me,” apparently thinking I was trying to force him into a subordinate position, something like “Hey boy, you listen to me now.” That’s when the problem “It’s not what I think I said, but what he heard.” first came to my mind. And, it’s not a problem that’s gotten any easier for me to recognize, understand, and manage over the years.

I also remember an incident while coaching Little League Baseball back when my son was young. One of our young pitchers came to a game one day sporting a brand new diamond ear stud. Cool, I thought, but what happens if it gets torn from his ear, or he or another player get stuck with the pin that’s piercing his ear? So I said to him, “You know, I think it might be safer if you took that off during the game and gave it to our assistant coach for safe keeping.” The young pitcher had no problem with my suggestion and eagerly complied. But, his grandmother threw a fit, accusing me of all kinds of prejudicial intent, even though I tried my best to explain my concerns for the safety issues involved. Again, “It’s not what I think I said, but what she heard.”

Even now, past 70 years of age, that problem annoyingly persists for me. It’s a booby-trap I unwittingly step into far more often than I’d care to admit. I do think that jumping to conclusions without attempting to clarify the other person’s intended meaning is a huge error. On the other hand, willful or negligent ignorance as to how other’s might interpret your meaning seems an equally grievous sin. I’ve concluded that both charity and diligence are called for. And so, that’s the position I have adopted for myself. Unfortunately, one cannot count on others having arrived at that same conclusion. Consequently, the problem persists, persists world-wide by my estimation.

The undeniable fact is that few of us have not been deeply hurt at some point. Most of us scar over and move on. However, for not an insignificant few, those underlying wounds can persist, susceptible to being re-irritated. He or she is “touchy”, we say. If we care, if we at least feel charitable, we try to steer clear of that touchiness, that irritability. But, not all of us are capable of fully imagining the deep persistent hurt others have endured, hurt we’ve never experienced. Inadvertently irritating another’s hurt can surprise us. Personally, I’d feel guilty and strive for a deeper more complete understanding. Others, maybe not. Others, may in fact seize on a discovered irritability in someone else and use it to torture and manipulate them. How very low. But maybe, such behavior is also an indication of how enduringly hurt they themselves have been. Inflicting pain on someone else may provide some sort of relief to their own pain. Or, so the old “kick the dog” theory goes. What is disturbingly true is that many with enduring unhealed wounds move beyond plain irritability to self-medication, self-mutilation, and violent rampage. The sad evidence is in the news daily.

I don’t have an answer for all the deep enduring hurt being felt out there. What I do know is that we humans are unavoidably fallible. Most of us are also capable of learning from our missteps, and choosing a better path forward for ourselves. May you always find a way to do just that. And, may you please at least give consideration to including in that path forward a diligent attempt to charitably understand and avoid irritating the hurt others endure. Your efforts won’t solve all the world’s interpersonal problems. But, I doubt they will make things any worse.

Wednesday, October 10th, 2018