I just read one of the best articles I’ve ever come across on interpersonal communication and particularly on the sources of misunderstanding: How to Avoid (and Quickly Recover from) Misunderstandings, by Peter Bregman. Don’t just read my musings about it; read the article, it’s worth your time.
There are a couple of things that make it a great article. First, he uses a very specific example that most of us can relate to, a misunderstanding about a simple, everyday conversation between him and his wife, and he tells the story well. He tells us what was said, what he was thinking, and what he finally learned that she was thinking.
Then he takes us through his mental and emotional process of first being frustrated and self-absorbed, then questioning his assumptions, then beginning to understand how his wife might be feeling, and finally checking out his assumptions with her by asking questions.
Finally, he makes a great point: that when misunderstandings arise, the responsibility to ask questions and get to the bottom of it falls to whoever sees the misunderstanding first. It doesn’t matter who “fault” it is. What matters is who has the insight to fix it first.
What the article made me think about is that specific examples and good stories we can relate to are what’s so often missing from communication and interpersonal skills training, and are what makes the difference between training that sticks and training that doesn’t. We can present models and theories all day, but telling a good, realistic story about a workplace miscommunication, a story that makes everyone say, “Yeah, I’ve been there,” is what really makes a difference. I try to do this in my own communication skills workshops by writing workplace scenarios for the participants to dissect, but it’s hard to get that edge of realism. I don’t do it nearly as well as Bregman does.
So I’ve resolved, from now on, to carry a notebook for this purpose. Whenever I see a workplace interaction that makes a good story, or hear about one in a training session or meeting, I’ll write it down. And if you have any of your own, I hope you’ll share them here.