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Effective Communication: The Power of Meaning (Part 3)

Image credit: © iStockphoto

In moments of conflict, it’s easy to get caught up in what is being said and the clashing points of view. Particularly when the conflict feels like it is getting increasingly personal – it’s hard to take a step back and see the bigger picture. Quite often, what’s overlooked is how much power you actually have to guide and even quickly diffuse the conflict. To take it a step further, it’s actually not what’s being said that people get caught up in, it’s the meaning behind it.

When we interact with other people, we apply many filters to what they are saying to us. We make assumptions according to those filters, and interpret what is said. Our interpretation always includes some level of meaning: the meaning we create around what we think they are saying. We do this all very naturally, and often without realizing.

Under most everyday scenarios, this process serves us well. However, when a situation escalates in complexity and emotional attachment runs higher, that self-applied meaning can work to our disadvantage.

A classic example is the relationship between a parent and their son or daughter.

Dad offers advice, worrying that if he doesn’t, Payton may misstep. The advice results in an argument where Payton takes offense, gets defensive and lashes out. Dad takes offense because his advice has been rejected, and lashes back. Words fly, tensions mount, and feelings are hurt. But in digging deeper, much of the argument stems from assumption, miscommunication, and an inaccurate application of meaning.

To Payton, Dad’s unsolicited advice means he doesn’t trust Payton’s ability to make the right decision, and that Payton never does anything right. For Dad, Payton’s rejection of his advice means Payton doesn’t want him involved in Payton’s life anymore. Both are hurt and angry. In the extreme case, grudges are born and communication halts for years. However, if Payton recognized that when Dad offers advice, it’s an expression of love and contribution, not invalidation; and Dad realized that Payton’s angry backlash is a cry for validation and acceptance, the argument ends there. The first person to recognize what the real issue is about and addresses what the other person actually needs de-escalates the argument instantly. On the other hand, if each holds on to his or her point of view, feeling offended, the argument recycles and never dies.

The important thing is being aware of the natural filters we apply to our communication, and the kinds of assumptions we are making in taking away meaning from things. Simple in theory, but far harder in practice. That said, once you start opening yourself to the possibility that maybe your initial assumption of what someone is saying may not be accurate, a whole world of interaction opens up. It’s not so much about being right or wrong, rather about relating to people on a whole other level.

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