9 Reasons It’s So Easy to Be Misunderstood

Note: Given that stormy Mercury stations direct today in Libra, the sign of relationships, it might be worth getting back to communication basics as we practice as much patience and mindfulness as possible. This week’s relationship-oriented post comes from Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D., at Psychology Today. — Amanda

By Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D.

How many times have you thought you were communicating clearly, only to discover that your words were taken in a way you never could have imagined—and likely, more negatively?

Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D.

Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D.

Here are 9 varying explanations as to why communication that, however carefully you delivered it—whether orally or in writing, might be quite different from the communication actually received. And doubtless, there are others:

1. The other person’s mind wandered.

Either they weren’t tuned into you or, without consciously having planned it, their brains temporarily went offline. Or they may have been preoccupied with other matters, and just weren’t mentally available. Nonetheless, you may need to take some responsibility, for it’s also possible that you started talking without making sure you’d secured their attention. Remember, our minds are always occupied with something. It’s only fair that if you want others to give you their undivided attention, you ask for it.

2. The other person is in a state of fatigue.

If someone is in a “brain fog”—or maybe it’s nighttime and they’re already more than ready to hang it up for the day—and, notwithstanding, you still make efforts to engage them, you’re significantly increasing the likelihood that you’ll be misunderstood. They may just not have enough mental acuity at the moment to follow you—and they may be too tired even to articulate this to you. Consider that, as any good comic would tell you, “timing is everything.” It’s imprudent (if not downright foolish) to approach anything complex or conflictual when your potential listener is “listened out.”

3. The other person is mad at you.

Keep in mind that if the other individual is emotionally upset with you, whatever you say (or write) to them is likely to be taken unfavorably. So this is hardly the time to be making your most forceful arguments to convince them that your point of view is justified, or superior to theirs. Rather, in such instances, your job, if you’re willing to accept it, is to hear them out: To not be the speaker but the auditor, and to see whether you can’t validate where they’re coming from—though it may contrast sharply with your own perspective. If you want them to recognize the legitimacy of your position, you’ll probably first need to summon up the patience, understanding, and compassion to listen sympathetically to theirs. In general, only by so doing might they be willing to listen to you without projecting onto your words a negatively distorted meaning born of their already being angry or irritated with you.

Continue reading at this link.


Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D., has maintained a general private practice since 1986 in Del Mar, California. With clinical specialties in anger, trauma resolution (EMDR), couples conflict, compulsive/addictive behaviors and depression, he has also taught some 200 adult education workshops on these subjects. His professional guidebook Paradoxical Strategies in Psychotherapy describes a wide array of seemingly illogical therapeutic interventions. These powerful techniques can help therapists effectively resolve difficult individual and marital/family problems when more straightforward methods have proved unsuccessful.

20 thoughts on “9 Reasons It’s So Easy to Be Misunderstood

  1. Amanda Painter

    strawberry laughter: i totally get where you’re coming from; i was initially struck by how one-sided the piece is. but my sense in reading the whole thing is that it’s less about projecting or not taking responsibility, and more about allowing some mindfulness regarding our inability to know what filters may be coloring another person’s perception/hearing/understanding at any given time. that is, if we’re sensitive to the fact that we’re possibly not being heard in the way we had intended to put across our message, we can detach enough to find out what’s going on, practice a little empathy, and in a *neutral* manner, perhaps engage in some clarifying communication (rather than *reacting* to the misunderstanding in an emotionally charged way).

    am i giving the author too much benefit of the doubt? possibly. then again, maybe he’s covered the ways one might not be communicating clearly in the first place in another of his columns. 🙂

  2. StrawberryLaughter

    Well, I was just struck by how it goes so completely against the grain of all Eric writes: his horoscopes in particular are always focused on seeing one’s own shit clearly in any situation–and not copping out by saying it’s the other person’s deal. I do hear you on the “getting enough distance to not take it personally” angle, but thought this essay to be more TV-soundbite than we’ve become used to here. Lord knows, you’ve set a high bar over the years; I’m sure it’s not easy to find writers who measure up. Still, I think it’s important to keep looking for quality writers offering challenging perspectives: PW readers are committed to you. That’s a rare enough thing these days. Keep up the good work.

  3. Eric Francis

    As a communicator, I can tell you this: I am constantly trying to account for, work around and compensate for the biases of my listeners and readers. I have been accused of saying many things I did not say, did not intend and that are coincidentally not in the text. I was once interviewed by a local newspaper and the author actually wrote, “He might have said….”

    Regarding the viewpoints of other columnists, they exist on the site to provide some diversity of point of view and approach to teaching. There has to be a minimal intersection of values, for example, a reasoning process, basic humanity and a loving point of view.

    I think it’s well worth considering that many people are just bad or distracted listeners, who are too lazy to pay attention, or to think about what they are reading, and who don’t really care what someone is saying or how they feel. In order to minimize confusion (or attempt to) I let fact checkers go over my work, and I give people the benefit of the doubt. Then I assume they are going to hear what they want to hear.

    Then I have my own text as a reference point in case I am challenged. But by the time I have to say, “Oh, you think I said that? Then why don’t you find that in the text and quote me,” the whole conversation is a waste of time.

    Which is why the viewpoint of my own [self help and astrology] writing is so often focused on, “Hey you might want to slow down and pay attention to your environment.” That happens to be my chosen approach to empowerment, but then I am a reporter first and an astrologer second. I am aware how much people reveal when they speak, if only I am willing to listen. (They reveal more by their actions.)

    That approach is based on the idea that it’s easier for you to change yourself (by which I mean pay attention to your senses) than it is for you to change someone else (such as get them to pay attention, or to admit what is obviously true), or to awaken someone who is only pretending to be asleep.

  4. Amanda Painter

    and, on the flip side, i think it’s just as easy to take this essay and instead of thinking, “oh, the other person must be hearing me through a filter, any misunderstanding is all on them,” ask yourself, “if someone says *i* misunderstood *them*, what filters were clouding my perception? was i actually even listening? was i in a bad mood and projecting?”

    that is, i see it just as much an essay about looking at the ways we contribute to our own misunderstanding of another. it just takes our willingness to apply dr. seltzer’s points to ourselves when we fail to hear what a person might have actually been trying to convey. not everyone wants to make that effort.

    1. StrawberryLaughter

      Yes, I completely agree, Amanda. It’s posdible, and actually helpful and useful in relationships to reinterpret his words that way, but that’s not what he said. Seltzer is a professional; he’s apparently a professional writer. If he’d wanted to say “look at yourself” he could have said “look at yourself.” What he said (in this essay, perhaps a larger context expands his philosophy) was “9 times out of 9 it’s the other guy’s failing.” He didn’t even throw in one self-awareness approach. That just feeds the Us vs. Them dichotomy that is such a problem in our culture right now (and the only reason I’m continuing with this discussion thread. I really don’t care about the essay.) We could be a lot healthier as a culture if we spent less time trying to figure out how the other guy is wrong, & instead trying to learn how we can do what we do better. It’s just so much wasted energy, because even if I do–correctly, which is a long-shot–assess why you failed to understand me, I can’t change you. I can only change me. Putting that much energy into figuring out what’s wrong with you is actually the opposite of awareness; it’s avoidance of looking for how I can change to make things better.

      1. Amanda Painter

        Is Seltzer really saying, “The other guy is *wrong*”? Or is he just saying, “Here are things that could be going on for the other person that would get in the way of understanding”?

        I definitely see the latter. And while the column lacks the specific self-awareness approach you would like to see (and that I would like to see, for sure), the point still seems more to me one of greater understanding, awareness and — ideally — empathy.

      2. DivaCarla Sanders

        Strawberry, so interesting how our filters are showing! I am not attached to this writer and his POV, though I get the validity and usefulness of what he is sharing. I didn’t pick this up at all: “9 times out of 9 it’s the other guy’s failing.” I don’t see a filter as a failing, not by itself. A filter can be a pothole, and if deep enough, there goes the oil pan or the axle.

        1. StrawberryLaughter

          And so in that way, I suppose it was an effective article. I still prefer to see the authentic self-awareness approach here; it’s one of the things I’ve always valued about PW.

          1. Amanda Painter

            Strawberry L. — I prefer that type of post, too, in general. 🙂 But in an effort to present a variety of authors, tones, styles, perspectives, etc., I’ve found it useful to look in a variety of places for possible material to present here. And by all means, if you know of writers who might fit the bill, please let me know about them!

            One tricky thing about editing this column as it is right now is figuring out the delicate balance between presenting bloggers who PW readers clearly resonate with, and making sure i’m not leaning too heavily on re-publishing any one writer who is not not officially writing *for* PW. Most writers I’ve approached have been open to their work appearing here, but not all.

            In any case, thank you for engaging in this conversation!

  5. Eric Francis

    Well, I am interested in where people are coming from, especially if I have them in person and can see their face and thus evaluate their sincerity.

    As an astrologer, what distinguishes my work is that I spend a LOT of time listening, to get underneath the surface. Listening is a trained and teachable skill. It is a conscious act. Hearing is the first sense that develops in the fetus. It is obviously a very crucial evolutionary skill.

    And most people are just lazy and cannot be bothered — to their detriment. My friend Steve, an attorney, has said, “People don’t listen. They just don’t listen.” Remember — he is speaking AS an attorney who gets people out of trouble.

    When I started doing audio as a prominent feature on Planet Waves, I got some really bitter complaints, threats to unsubscribe, accusations that all I was doing was audio, and so on. I am glad I have a strong stomach and refuse to be pushed around by those particular readers and subscribers, or I might have given up on a lifelong dream.

    Now Planet Waves FM is as popular as any other feature and fully half or our revenue comes from my spoken word readings. I write every bit as much as I did in the past, but I have added spoken word because it’s a vital, useful, traditional way to convey information. It is intimate, there is inflection, you can hear me breathing and thus know that I am human, and the auditory sense is pretty close to direct-to-brain.

    Around the time I was making this transition, I called the annual edition LISTEN, which was more than decorative. It is a verb stated in the imperative.

    One other thought. Personally I find the public use of mp3 players appalling for many reasons — it cuts people of from physical reality, for one thing, it’s rude for another, and it’s extremely dangerous since you are as likely to be spared getting hit by a car from sound as you are from vision.

  6. DivaCarla Sanders

    Having made the beginnings of a study in communication this summer, between two very specific filters (men and women) I can see how this article is about awareness. Sometimes we have to learn to speak each other’s language, especially when the communication is in an important relationship, like a spouse, lover, boss, business partner, child. It can feel burdensome, like the onus is on me to communicate well, but who else can it be on?

    I’ve had experiences where I misunderstood what someone thought they were communicating to me. It was puzzling and distressing until I realized that what I heard and what they thought they were communicating were out of sync. Communication is a two way street with potholes.

    1. StrawberryLaughter

      Carla, I’d love to see you writing the relationship column. What you write is always so rich, & poignant, & authentic. I love reading your words.

      1. Amanda Painter

        Carla, if you’re interested, there’s definitely room to include you among the guest writers in the relationships-and-sex slot! Contact me and Eric by email if you’re interested.

  7. DivaCarla Sanders

    Strawberry and HS, I am touched and blushing, and must confess to being unqualified on the topic. There is very good reason I am making a study of relationship… my record is pretty dismal, and it’s where I need some serious work! I come to planetwaves to get help!

    1. Hugging Scorpio

      ah yes, but in reaching for your own light, you are a light for others. It is through the very act of formulating ideas into words that we bring into manifestation the very thing we wish to embody. Your wisdom and balance makes you quite qualified. 🙂

  8. Lizzy

    I so agree with what you say about communication, Diva Carla. And I think you’d be a great addition to these pages, too! You’re right Hugging , you’ve expressed it so well.

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