You’re twisting my words

“One often contradicts an opinion when what is uncongenial is really the tone in which it is conveyed.”

Frederich Nietsche

This article is not just about the tone we employ, but about interpreting or misinterpreting what has been said, though our tone of voice can play a critical part in how what we mean to say is received.

Along with tone, another vital factor in spoken communication is our accompanying facial gestures; these can sometimes be misconstrued even more so than what’s being said, or at least add to any potential misunderstanding.

A personal example of this is a friend of mine who is a doctor; she tends to frown frequently when in conversation, particularly when listening. I only recently realised that I have often interpreted her frown as negative, when that’s not at all what she means to convey. She simply tends to overuse the ‘frown of concentration’. This is known as discongruence, i.e. what is coming out of someone’s mouth is not aligned with the facial expression we would generally expect. So my misinterpretation is not surprising or uncommon.

What of how we interpret the words that are spoken? This is a veritable minefield! What happens between ear and brain (to oversimplify) can be quite a leap, and often a subconscious one. Even if, or when, we’re giving our full attention to our conversational partner, a fair amount of distortion can take place.

As many of us know, whether it’s us or the person we’re in conversation with, the one not doing the talking is often giving more thought to what they want to say next, rather than listening before formulating their response! Furthermore, human beings have a tendency to hear what’s being said through our own filters, colouring the information with our opinions and view of the world.

Sometimes the scenario can be fairly innocuous, albeit irritating, and any misinterpretations that arise are dismissed or forgiven. During more stressful times, however, emotions can escalate and make for an explosive atmosphere, creating huge gulfs between family members, colleagues, communities or entire nations!

In the latter situation, it would be prudent to engage the services of someone expertly trained in conflict resolution such as Gabrielle Rifkind, co-author of ‘The Fog of Peace: The Human Face of Conflict Resolution’. Writing in The Guardian earlier this year, she says:-

“Institutions do not decide to go to war or to make peace or decide who to destroy or kill; those actions are the responsibility of individuals. So to try to understand the root causes of conflict only in terms of power politics and resources, without also understanding human behaviour, undermines our effectiveness in preventing war and making peace.”

Of course she is referring to war-torn regions that have often been traumatised by conflict for many years. Nevertheless, she accurately points out that “actions are the responsibility of individuals”.

I use an extreme example to illustrate my point. Thankfully, in the UK, where I’m based, we no longer live in war-torn communities. That being said, if we focus on being responsible for our actions on a day-to-day basis, misunderstandings and conflicts can be substantially reduced.

With regard to our daily spoken communication, if we bring all our attention to what the speaker is saying, we are far more likely to have successful, productive and even inspiring communications between colleagues. The same can be said if we are aware, considerate and as unambiguous as possible with our verbal and non-verbal communication when we are speaking.

In summary, here are some tips to start practising in your daily conversations:-

  1. Listen actively when on the receiving end of any communication. This means not composing what you want to say before your interlocutor has finished speaking.
  2. Also as the listener, be aware of your own mood or ‘state’; the more conscious you are of this, the more you will realise that you could be colouring what’s being said.
  3. If there is something you think you may have misinterpreted ask the speaker to clarify or elucidate. You can even explain what you thought they meant.
  4. As the speaker, pay attention not only to what you are saying but also how you are saying it, i.e. through your tone of voice and facial expressions, even body posture.
  5. Again, as the speaker, your mood or state can influence how your communication is delivered to the receiver. Bring attention to your mood; focus on your breathing and take time to think before saying what you want to say.
  6. Ensure the listener has correctly interpreted what you said by getting feedback from them, clarifying that what they heard was what you intended.

The more awareness and attention we bring to our spoken communications, the higher quality they will be; the ensuing results are likely to be very positive and even, dare I say, life-enhancing!