Saying What You Mean

One of the deepest problems of communication is that we don’t actually mean what we say. Not in the sense of actively trying to convince others of things we don’t believe, commonly called “lying”, but in a more casual way. What I’m pointing at is the indirection of saying something that suggests the real issue or topic, but allows us to avoid taking responsibility for it.

That is a bit abstract, so here’s an example I’m guilty of a lot: I would like someone to do something, but I won’t ask for it. Instead, I’ll point to a problem or issue I have, and hope that my conversational partner will understand that I would like their help with that issue. What does this look like? When I mean, “Could you send an email to Joe and tell him what we decided?” I instead say something like “I see that we still haven’t responded to Joe’s question.” It’s reasonable to think that my partner can read the idea there, but putting that burden on them is just increasingly the likelihood of misunderstanding and hurt feelings. It’s not useful, and I’m communicating the wrong thing.

And while I don’t recommend that method, there are worse ones. One of the worst ways of communicating “will you help me with this issue” I remember using is the blame game. Dysfunctional relationships — most stereotypically marriages — can have this happen a lot. Rather than talking about the fact that Bob leaves his shoes in places that Sue wishes he wouldn’t, Sue will yell at Bob for being an lazy, absent-minded pig. She may not even tell him that his shoes were the issue, but instead consistently communicates to him a general disgust.

Part of the reason we’re so prone to communicating the wrong thing is that we’re not really sure what we’re meaning to communicate in the first place. It may well be the case that by the time Sue gets to talk to Bob about the problem of his shoes all she has in her mind is the fact that he’s lazy, good-for-nothing slob. It’s quite common and understandable to draw the large from the small, to proverbially “make mountains out of molehills”, and knowing you’re doing that when you are requires a great deal of discipline.

Communicating exactly what you mean is not something that’s easy to do. It’s not a switch you flip and suddenly you’ll find your communication less dysfunctional and prone to unexpected blowups. It’s a slow gradual process of learning. It’s a thing you set out to get a little bit better at, you fail to get better at, and then you try harder next time. You live that cycle a few hundred times and maybe you’ll see progress.

Clarifying what you’re really trying to communicate is an invaluable exercise. When a conversation becomes confrontational unexpectedly, there are few more effective tools than apologizing, slowing down, and expressing what you really mean. When a conversation that you think should be easy is hard, check how accurately you stated what you mean. Slowly, you’ll learn how to communicate your meaning better. If you have patience for the whole process, it pays huge dividends. Of that I am certain.