7 Tips on How to Avoid Being Misinterpreted

A friend of mine is launching a book this fall. Because she writes a weekly blog, she asked her PR Director if he could provide her with any email addresses from the team who might like to receive her weekly article.  A week or so later, the PR Director responded that it was against their company’s policy to provide any email addresses of their bloggers because of privacy concerns.  She was a little puzzled by his response given that she just wanted to make sure that the members of the PR firm were getting her post.

My author friend decided to follow up on the somewhat odd response she had received from the PR Director.  When she contacted him, he was somewhat embarrassed that he had misinterpreted her request.  The PR Director told her that he was in a “blogger” mindset at the time he received her request and that is why he probably assumed she was asking for the email addresses of the PR firm’s bloggers.

This situation is common to all of us.  If we are lacking data about a situation we are in, our brain makes up the difference by filling in the gaps. Unfortunately, we often assume the worst in such situations. We end up making negative assumptions and interpretations about people or the situation without looking objectively at the available data. Nor do we often assess if we have all of the available data that would support our thinking. It’s difficult to remain objective under such circumstances. Without all of the data, we may make mistakes in judgment leading to errors in our thinking and actions.

The PR Director was correct when he said that his error was the result of “Blogger” mindset based on his current circumstances. We all make judgments based on our mindset and frame of reference.  These mindsets are generally based on our past experiences—what we have observed, learned, or been told by others.  Additionally, we are influenced by what circumstances we are currently in.  If we are preoccupied with our thoughts, experiences, and conversations, they can also have an impact on our assumptions, judgments, and actions.   This process of interpretation happens so quickly that we usually don’t take time to stop, think and objectively examine if we have all the necessary data.  Matters become further complicated when people become emotional in these situations.

Here are some suggestions for managing your mindset that will reduce the likelihood of being misinterpreted:

1. Recognize and anticipate individual differences. You cannot assume that your listener is just like you.  Each listener has a different life experience and a vast array of different perceptions.  Because of these different perceptions, they will likely have a different mindset than you.  Expect that they may misinterpret what you say and give you something different than what you expected. You need to anticipate and understand differences.

2. Don’t take others’ misinterpretations personally.  People’s misinterpretations are generally a product of their current mindset.  Recognizing this concept will help you understand that other people will see things differently or may misinterpret what you have said. As an effective communicator, you must manage the conversation to insure that you will not be misinterpreted. Recognize that misunderstanding is the product of their thinking.

3. Check your expectations.  If you are giving directions or making requests, you need to clearly and specifically identify what you would like people to do.  If you don’t know exactly what you want, then what you say may lack sufficient detail and allow people to interpret your message incorrectly. Be as clear as possible.

4.  Ask clarifying questions.  There is nothing wrong with asking someone to repeat back what they think they heard you say.  In fact, this is essential with some interaction styles who think faster than they can speak.  They often think they have said something when they haven’t.  Having them repeat back what they thought you said will help avoid misunderstandings. Ask to clarify.

5.  Write it down.  If what you are asking people to do is fairly complicated, you should clearly document the steps and details and then ask them if you’ve missed anything.  This process forces you to take a close look at your directions and allows them to clarify anything missing or unclear. Make the details obvious.

6. Check for alternatives.  Sometimes when a person says something, we naturally attribute negative meaning to what they’ve said.  If you find yourself making negative judgments or assumptions about the person or their behavior, it helps to ask yourself if there is a positive interpretation to give the same facts. Make sure you are looking at the situation objectively and that you have all the data before making assumptions. Explore your assumptions and recognize when they are incomplete or inaccurate.

7. Pick up the phone.  We spend more time communicating with people via email or text than ever before.  Unfortunately, the tone and intent of these exchanges are often missing.  It is often helpful to call and speak to the person to ask a simple clarifying question or two rather than assuming that we have understood. Call if you are ever in doubt.

We are all prone to making interpretations or assumptions about what others are saying.  Given that our work is increasing in scope and speed is all the more reason for us to stop and examine our thinking for accuracy before we rush to action.  Doing so will insure that we are communicating clearly and accurately so that our actions will deliver the results that we really want.