One of the most important parts of communication is understanding or at least attempting to see and understand the point of view of the person you are interacting with. The ability to do this makes the difference between taking everything literally or taking things as they are potentially meant. The same statement can have a variety of meanings but only one intended – and that one depends on YOU understanding the intentions of the person making the statement. To prevent misunderstandings and to help us minimize the times we negatively impact someone’s day, it’s imperative that we remember this one thing: what is trivial to us, can be traumatic to another. Let’s take a look at an example of how one statement can mean different things, and work on from there.
Example: It sure is a beautiful night out.
Literal – it’s a beautiful night out because the weather is perfect. The sky is clear, the temperature is comfortable, the breeze is just right, etc.
Sarcastic – it’s cold, miserable and raining hard. It’s anything BUT a beautiful night.
Romantic Potential – man speaking to woman as he implies that they should take advantage of the beauty of the night, but clearly meaning that the night around them wouldn’t be as beautiful if they weren’t enjoying it together.
That’s a quick easy to understand example of how a single statement can mean different things depending on the intent of the person saying it. However, if the person hearing it doesn’t understand the intent, then they might think the speaker is a bit loony. After all, if you’re the guy who hates cold rainy weather and you think someone is being serious about how beautiful such weather is… you might be a tad confused.
This simple example of how easy misunderstandings can occur can be expanded upon to understand how an experience or incident can be viewed differently with an even greater impact on those involved. As a veteran law enforcement officer I tried to keep this in mind while dealing with the public as I did my job each day. As a parent, I tried to keep this in mind as I dealt with my children each day. As a husband I try to keep this in mind as I deal with my wife each day. None of the above are always easy to accomplish and sometimes misunderstandings still occur.
On the street, as a police officer, I pulled over my fair share of people for various driving violations. It is an absolute truth that every traffic stop carries unknown risk for the police officer and we have to constantly be on the lookout for signs of a threat. While we’re doing that, we also have to maintain a professional and courteous demeanor. No matter how good we are at maintaining that balance, we still encounter people who seem to blow the traffic stop experience way out of proportion. Why do they do that? Because what’s trivial to us (the 100th traffic stop of the month) is traumatic to them (the first traffic stop of their life!).
I pulled over an elderly woman (in her mid-80s) once who was doing a great job of driving… but her license plates displayed as expired. When I pulled her over and walked up to her window she was in tears. I had to calm her down just to find out why she was so upset only to find out that I was the reason why. She’d never been pulled over before (what she told me) and never had previously had a ticket in her entire driving career… which she had started at the grand old age of twelve! When I explained that I was only stopping her because her tags were expired she quickly told me that the sticker was in her glove compartment and that she’d forgotten to put it on. I took care of that for her and made her evening – but the stop didn’t start out so well. I had one outlook on the event while she had a very different outlook on the same experience.
This happens to many people all over the world every day. Doctors talk to patients about “routine surgery,” and HAVE to be aware that the patients are freaking out, scared out of their minds because… SURGERY. Mortgage officers talk to applicants and discuss “routine” documentation but the people seeking approval for the loans could be buying their first house and are stressing the fine microscope that seems to be applied to their every spent penny.
Different outlooks can certainly cause different reactions to the same event, just as different understandings can cause different reactions to the same statement. It behooves us to at least attempt to take into consideration what the other person’s outlook toward a statement or experience might be. In doing so, we can anticipate potential misunderstandings and word our statements… or filter our actions… or combine the two, so that we minimize any negative impact or misunderstanding that might occur.
I know one thing for sure and certain: If I’m the guy on the “trauma” side of that trivia vs. trauma equation, I want the other person to do all they can to minimize my lack of understanding. It helps my day(s) go much smoother.
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