A Perfect System of Misunderstanding

In a familiar communications training exercise people draw a picture of their lives on a clear plastic sheet, a “view foil” or “transparency” — the stuff used in the past with overhead projectors. The idea is for each person to use colored pens to fill up his or her sheet with a variety of images — of childhood and family, work and profession, life experiences and turning points, values, aspirations and expectations. Then, in the next part of the exercise, people hold the sheet up in front of their faces and look through it at someone else looking back at them through their own sheet. How much of one another’s true face can they see through these two “life filters”? Not a lot.

Similarly, I remember once working with two people whose ongoing conflict had surfaced at a company retreat. The conflict, related to project management, directly affected the others in the room — all members of the same small firm. I asked the two people if they would be willing to work on their conflict in front of the group and they agreed. I then asked the the first person (A) to talk about how he saw their differences, and asked the second person (B) to repeat back what he had heard A say. Then I asked the group to weigh in on how well B had paraphrased A’s main points. We reversed roles and went back and forth between the two people several times. The results were so bad the group chuckled every time they were asked to rate A or B’s paraphrases. A and B each spoke almost entirely through their personal lenses — using words that characterized and supported their own version of the “truth” about the situation even though they were supposed to be listening carefully to one another. They could not repeat what each other had said with any accuracy, and the interpretations were often so far off as to be hilarious. In a second phase of the exercise, group members came in more strongly to assist the two with their paraphrases, which turned out to be more valuable. (The group helped them more than I ever could).

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Again and again, as I’ve assisted people with their conflicts, it is clear how they miss each other in the name of preserving their truths. We seem to thrive on caricatures and stereotypes and all too habitually see problems rather than possibilities in the unknown regions beyond our own preferred stories. With A and B, two higher level professionals, the issues had to do with respect for one another’s contributions, knowledge and time, and idiosyncratic methods for coordinating their activities. But there are a million ways to talk past each other. With leaders, especially if there is a formal power difference and mistrust is present, the caricature often comes down to an enduring belief that the leader is some kind of narcissistic autocrat, even when the blind spot driving this misperception is something like incomplete communications and feedback, perfectionism, or poor delegation skills. Even a leader’s naive attempts to “serve” by taking on too much personally can elicit distorted views of an autocrat’s traits (such as control). All of our behaviors leave impressions and the fall-back position in this culture seems to be that anything inexplicable or ambiguous in a formal leader’s behavior is probably the result of a hidden agenda, an effort to control, or something else clever and inept, part of the negative, untrustworthy stereotype of “bosses.” This isn’t to say autocrats don’t exist (they do) — or that insensitivity does not exist (it does) — but insensitivity can be a two-way street, and if we miss each other by an inch that inch can soon become a mile.

This is one of the reasons formal leaders have to work a little harder to get past the roles and the power differences — precisely because they are leaders, helping everyone past the stereotypes in order to build a different kind of network culture.

It is by virtue of how addicted we are to our interpretations that we create the perfect, impenetrable systems of misunderstanding and mistrust, our crimes of reciprocal, misconstrued “truth.” Big and small systems. Big and small crimes. There is so much irony in this. Our private truths become our mutual falsehoods. That’s why we must slow down, create the dialogue that penetrates our assumptions, reach out, and learn to trust. Of course, that can be a complicated and initially time consuming task. Of course there are no guarantees. But if you want to get beyond misunderstanding you have to ask about what you really don’t know. You have to be able to paraphrase what doesn’t quite fit with how you thought things were. That’s where connection is. That’s where freedom is — in what is unknown, uncertain, awkward and yet to be discovered about one another — the stuff that blows our theories all to hell.

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A and B got better that day. As the group helped them paraphrase and as they talked about their differing interpretations of painful events they began to see how badly they had missed one another, and they agreed on a different code of respect. It was a good experience if not a radical breakthrough.

Like an anthropologist I try to understand how people assign meaning to one one another’s masks, learning languages that may have similar words but are not at all the same. If I am lucky, people wipe clear a little spot on the plastic sheets and part of another human eye appears before them — they see each other.

Sometimes there’s a kind of sadness or loneliness in occupying this intermediary space. I am not sure exactly why that is so. But it is something about seeing really wonderful, incredibly talented people each making assumptions about the other that have little to do with the truth I see in both of them.

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8 Comments

  • Dear Dan,
    Your posts always move me (and others) deeply to embrace basic truths that propel change.

    This post went even further. It puts us into the “aha” moments of life with a fresh new view and causes reflection to transform the way we communicate.

    This post is home run and I will share with many.

    Warmest regards,
    Kate Nasser

  • I second what Kate posted.

    Dan you have a gift of going deeper and affecting us fully. You are a soulful leader

    I truly enjoy reading your thoughts and ideas.

    Bless you.
    Lolly Daskal
    Lead From Within

  • I heard it said that there’s at least three sides to every story; your side, their side, and the truth. Your post exemplifies this remarkably well.

    As a leader, I always keep this in mind when facilitating conflicts or when brainstorming with the team.

    Thank you for sharing your experience and wonderful insight.

  • Great article. Everyone has lenses, some just don’t know it.

  • Dan, This is beautifully written. Of course, I expect that from you. I particularly appreciate the last two paragraphs. You have taken the need to recognize our own lenses and acknowledge the lenses of others a step beyond. How true that sometimes there is a bit of sadness in releasing who we have been as we become more authentic and more caring. Giving up something that has been very comfortable holds risk, but in that risk is possibility.

  • Thank you so much to all for your kind comments. It’s great to know this post resonated with you.

    @KateNasser — “reflection to transform the way we communicate” — YES!

    @LollyDaskal — As always, Lolly, thank you for your heart-felt support

    @Redge — Yes, I’ve heard the three sides to every story statement, as well, and totally agree — and, as I bet you know, it’s not always easy to keep all three in mind! Thank you!

    @Denise — Sometimes I think I see my own lenses, sometimes others have to point them out to me! Thank you for stopping by, Denise!

    @ Ah, Lyn, it’s clear you have experienced that same feeling. I love the way you connect that to authenticity and the personal journey…my best to you

  • I really enjoyed your post, Dan. Excellent insights and so well written. The fishbowl technique is so powerful. Reminds me of the Greek Chorus. Unfortunately most of us live our lives looking out from behind the plastic sheets, without even realizing it’s there, and without a personal Greek Chorus to tell us what is real.

    I too have experienced sadness or loneliness in the intermediary space. What I usually realize is I’m attaching some meaning to being alone. When I explore it with curiosity, it is dynamic and ever-changing.

  • Wow, what a fabulous comparison, Jesse — the Greek Chorus! Indeed! They share the lyric in the background and reinforce the deeper meaning of the story line.

    And thank you for your thoughts on the loneliness. It is a subtle thing — something I continue to work on. Your suggestion to explore it with curiosity is something I will take to heart. Thank you!

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