Being misunderstood by others can be so frustrating! It is tempting to believe it’s all their fault, their deficiency. If only those “other people” whom we care about, work with, report to, and supervise did not misconstrue our words with their own misguided thinking. Then they could fully leverage our contributions!
The gap between how clear we think we are and how much our intentions are misunderstood can be shocking when we see it. The gap can also remain invisible if we do not bother to probe.
Recently, a client I’ll call Kira very effectively took some responsibility for being misunderstood. I was working with her executive team when she proactively acknowledged that she knew her preferred communication style was seen by some as very accommodating and not sufficiently leader-like.
Kira knew she needed to keep re-earning the trust of her colleagues, and she also knew that she couldn’t be an inauthentic version of herself. In the moment, she explained her way of getting staff buy-in. Kira assured them that she understood and prioritized the desired results, and that despite what they saw on the surface (via their own biased lenses), she was not a pushover. She was indeed influencing others in her emotionally intelligent way. In that moment, she reduced how much her peers may underestimate her leadership in the future.
When you believe you are misunderstood, it’s on you to inject more clarity into your interactions. It takes just a couple of minutes.
These simple “moves” will preempt and reduce the damage of misunderstandings – and foster better teamwork.
Before an interaction: Internally acknowledge the different lived experiences, starting positions, and priorities that others inevitably bring (their past setbacks, different functional goals, etc.). If you don’t know them already, ask around. And own up to your own overused beliefs before you trigger negative emotions in the meeting.
For example, notice whether you will have more authority, confidence, and organizational knowledge than the other person. To avoid being seen as uncollaborative, plan how you will take the time to patiently hear their views, even if you have different priorities and your own agenda. Be prepared to respect the legitimacy of their concerns even as you ask them to put them in perspective alongside other considerations. Also decide in advance what factual information you will share early, so they can ride up the learning curve.
During a meeting: Keep reading the room. Notice how folks are responding to you. If you don’t like the vibe, remember that you are always half of the chemistry. As needed, change up both what and how you communicate in situation-specific ways. There is nearly always a conversational “move” you can make in the moment that will reduce misunderstandings.
For example, if you sense folks are dismissively underestimating what you can contribute on a topic, then find moments to assert your views in new and different ways. If one comment doesn’t land well, try a very different way to influence, teach, and advance the work. Perhaps through a provocative question, a new piece of data, or a “what if” statement.
After a conversation: If you have the slightest hunch that your intentions were misunderstood, check back and reinforce your intentions with a follow-up message that suits the person and situation. Respectfully compensate for anything you may have conveyed poorly. This is not “too little, too late”– it is mature follow-up.
For example, if you sense that you were too detail-focused or too big picture for someone’s preference, balance things out later. Offer a short follow-up conversation focused at their preferred level of detail, where they do their best thinking. If you show your openness, they may give you the benefit of the doubt next time you try to influence them. (In fact, I had to do some damage control today, after my clumsy email to a client was inadvertently seen as disrespectful…. I simply apologized and explained my intention.)
Two bonus tips:
If you’re just having a bad day and are extra tired, impatient, or emotional: Just say so. Apologize for not being able to fully control your mood and reactions, so it’s not personal.
If you really, really just cannot get along with someone and have an engrained pattern of distrust and misunderstanding, enlist allies to help you be better understood by them.