I am responsible for what I spoke, but not for what you understood. – Unknown
What does that mean?
To me, this is a tale of responsibility, and to whom it belongs. We are responsible for the words we say, but not for how others choose to hear them.
Others might hear what you say, but not hear what you meant. They may misinterpret what you say, as their mind will filter your words through their own definitions.
They also have a perception filter or framework, where certain words have very different meanings, based on their personal experiences. That could skew their understanding, right?
While it is their responsibility to understand, we can make it easier for them by choosing our words carefully, defining them precisely, and explicitly stating what we don’t mean.
Why is being responsible important?
There are many ways in which we should be responsible. For the purposes of this post, we shall focus on our responsibility as speakers. We are responsible for what we say, and the listener is responsible for understanding it. But we would be irresponsible if we deliberately chose confusing language.
Part of the responsibility of the speaker is to choose their words with care and precision, to minimize the confusion and make understanding as easy as possible. The other half of the responsibility of the speaker is to help the listener understand. This can be by making statements to clarify points or deflect possible misunderstandings.
Consider what some of the great orators of history have rallied people to do. Some have saved civilizations, others have destroyed them. And that was just opposing leaders of the two sides of the largest war in the prior century. Other speakers have misused their abilities and abandoned their responsibility and lead their followers to their deaths.
Speech can be a powerful weapon, on par with the pen and with the sword. Those who would choose to wield any of them wield great power. And with great power comes great responsibility. Misunderstandings can lead to suffering, pain, and in fates extreme cases, far worse. Those who would speak must tread carefully.
Where can I apply this in my life?
With the exception of a hand-fill of people under vows of silence, or the people who are mute (unable to speak), the rest of us speak to others on a fairly regular basis. Our words have meanings to us, but not always the exact same meaning to others. This is a foundation for misunderstanding.
Take a moment and consider some of the misunderstandings you have been part of in the past. In the situations which were resolved, what did you misunderstand? Was it funny or was it sad? Were harsh words exchanged before you were able to figure out that they misunderstood you? How did that feel?
From a feelings point of view, misunderstandings can lead to hurt feelings or even destroyed relationships. If someone has lost a relationship to cheating before, and suspects you of cheating, you must choose your words carefully, as they will be looking for reasons or ways to misunderstand what you said to match their life experiences.
As was mentioned earlier, we can reduce the chance of misunderstanding by soliciting feedback from the other person. Ask “What did that mean to you?” or use similar question. Listen to their response and then adjust your next statement to clarify your point or position. It’s a delicate dance.
It is more difficult when you have an audience rather than a partner. Since you cannot gather feedback, you have to move preemptively. Consider your words, and look for places where you think they might misunderstand you, and place qualifying statements around the point, to help them understand the idea you intended.
You can also sprinkle contrary statements after each important point. That’s not to say you make every other statement negative, but sprinkling them in when you think there might be a point of misunderstanding can be very useful. Do you see what I just did? Sometimes an example is easier to give than an explanation.
Think about some of your recent conversations which included a misunderstanding. How could you have been more precise, clearer, or less ambiguous in your word choice? How could you have used your knowledge of your audience to select less confusing words? What could you have said to help head off a misunderstanding? How would that change your relationship with them?
We all communicate. Most of us do it with the spoken word. It is up to us to be responsible as speakers to be as clear and concise as possible. Take a moment and consider how you will apply this to your next conversation today, and to the rest of your life.