What Do You Mean?

By Robine Jean-Pierre

You see an abstract painting on the wall in a museum. The seemingly random assortment of swirls, shapes and colors leaves you puzzled and intrigued. One onlooker says it reminds her of a sinking ship. Another comes along and says it must be a garden. A small inscription on the wall indicates that the painter wanted to illustrate a busy city street. Who is right?

I like to think that every form of communication consists of at least two aspects: intention (what the speaker wants to convey) and reception (how the listener interprets it). I use speaker and listener as general terms, but the pair could also be artist and viewer, author and reader, etc. In an ideal world, intention and reception would always be equal; the speaker would give a message, and the listener would understand exactly what the speaker meant. However, very rarely does it work this way in the real world. Too often, the speaker says one thing but the listener takes it to mean something completely different. It is like a constant tug of war between the two aspects; sometimes intention holds more weight, and other times reception is more significant.

Intention Matters

I believe there are times when what the speaker has to say is way more important than anyone’s interpretation. For example, art can very subjective because of its connection to the emotions, and its ability to disguise meaning in symbols and metaphors. However, art can also be very concrete. A sculpture of a fruit basket can simply be a representation of a fruit basket. An engraving of a monarch created during his reign can have very specific references, styles, or symbols pertaining to that particular time period, nation, etc. Many of these references would be meaningless without the proper context.

For another example, take one of William Shakespeare’s works. Many of the words he used have very different meanings today; the “nothing” in his comedy titled Much Ado About Nothing was, among several meanings, slang for “lady parts” (see “Double Entendre & Innuendo in Much Ado About Nothing” on Study.com for more). What use would it be for today’s readers to read his works and give them blind modern interpretations? Without context, we would never get at what he was really saying and we would miss out on the genius behind much of his work.

Reception Matters

On the flip side, there are also times when the way a message is taken by the receiver can take precedence over what the sender meant. This is the case especially when it comes to social interactions. Our ideas of what is proper, preferred, or offensive are heavily dictated by our culture and personal experiences. Since this varies from person to person, it can be very easy for misinterpretations to arise.

Let’s say Jack often tells Jill, “You’re one of the nicest people I’ve ever met,” and Jill takes it to mean, “I have feelings for you.” Jill might get excited at the thought of Jack wanting to be romantically involved; or, she might get offended that Jack appears to be hitting on her when she’s already in a committed relationship. Jack’s intentions may have simply been to be kind to Jill, but he did not consider that, for Jill, receiving frequent compliments from a guy must mean he’s interested in her.

In situations like these, “good intentions” are not necessarily enough. The listener has the right to present her interpretation to the speaker, even if she was totally off the mark. The speaker could then reevaluate what he said and consider taking some responsibility, even if he “didn’t mean it like that,” in order to restore peace or clear the air. Sure, there are people out there who are hypersensitive and get offended too easily, no matter how careful you are in expressing yourself. Nonetheless, it’s usually safer to address people with an attitude that says “if one of us was wrong, it was probably me; how can I fix this?”

I believe that the key to making sure intention and reception agree with one another is to get feedback. Switch up listener and speaker roles often; if they are constant, then you may have to ask yourself, “Is this a dialogue or a monologue? Are we having a conversation, or  a lecture?” After someone has said something to you, there is nothing wrong with replying, “So what you’re basically saying is…?” and reiterating what you believe the message was. Another option is to ask your listener, “So what do you think of what I just said? Does it make sense? How do you feel about it?” Think of all the arguments, misunderstandings, and mistakes that could be prevented if we just took the extra time to get and give feedback.

Have you ever said something that someone took the wrong way, or vice versa? How was the misunderstanding resolved? What are some ways you practice giving or getting feedback?

Did You Get My Message?

By Robine Jean-Pierre

You send a message to a friend, eagerly awaiting a reply. Hours go by and you don’t hear any word from him, until later in the day when you see him in person. He doesn’t bring it up, and this forces you to ask, “Did you get my message?” to which he responds, “What message?”

With instant messaging apps like Messenger and WhatsApp, a message typically goes through three stages while traveling from sender to recipient: sent, delivered, and read. In this scenario, the problem could have occurred at any of these stages. Maybe you were in a tunnel on the train and the message never sent because you lost signal. Maybe it was never delivered because your friend’s phone was on airplane mode. Or maybe it was never read because he overlooked a notification, or did not have his phone close by.

Communication, whether inside or outside the digital world, is complicated. The more steps there are between you and your recipient, the more garbled your message can become—just like a classic game of “Telephone.” It starts with a thought, and depending on your articulation skills (or the lack thereof, as many of us would readily admit), your own mouth might betray you. How many times have you said, “In my head it sounded right, but it didn’t come out how I wanted it to”? Furthermore, the words you deliver have to go through the eyes or ears of your recipient, and they will often be interpreted according to that person’s bias, preconceived notions, hearing, mood, etc.  

I have learned the hard way that intention is not enough when it comes to effective communication. “Meaning well” does not always guarantee that the person you are talking to will understand you. I doubt technology will ever equip us with the means to read each other’s minds, but we can take measures to prevent painful or awkward errors in communication. What are some things you can do before expressing a thought, or responding to someone else’s?

One step that works 99% of the time is to pause. (It’s interesting how people tend to use the word “pause” only in the humorous way, to bring attention to provocative innuendo or double entendre.) Pausing is an important part of any conversation, not just for dramatic or comedic effect. Pause before you say something (so you can think it through first), after you say something (so you can consider the gravity or validity of what you just said), and definitely before responding to someone else. If it’s a text message, proofread before you send your own, and reread the other person’s message a few times.

Pausing before responding to someone else is one way you can ensure you are using logic, rather than emotion or whim, to formulate an answer. My fiancé Angel’s brother, Andre, said something once that stuck with me. To paraphrase: “When someone says something to you that triggers your emotions, the closer to home it hits, the longer you should wait before responding.” In the same vein, Angel likes to remind me that “emotions are indicators, not dictators.” They can make you aware of how something has affected you, but they do not have to influence or determine your decisions. Letting them air out for even a few seconds can keep you from lashing out or saying things you don’t really mean. In this way you can “respond” rather than “react” (another point Angel likes to make).

Another important thing to go along with pausing is to put yourself in the other person’s shoes. If you know someone well enough, you can read a text message in his/her tone of voice, and this might help you contextualize whatever he/she said. The words “I can’t stand you” in a text message might initially be a slap in the face, unless you recall that your friend tends to say this all the time in a joking manner towards the people he/she loves. On the other hand, your friend might have genuinely meant it in a serious, irritated tone; if so, instead of flaring up and getting offended, ask yourself, “What might he be going through right now?” or “What did I do to make her upset?” If the answer is “nothing,” then “don’t take it personally” is valid advice because, nine times out of ten, you are not the problem; the person has acted out for reasons that have very little to do with you. You do not have to excuse or justify the person’s behavior, but you can choose not to make it about you; be gentle, understanding, and proceed with caution.

Here are some other tips which I hope you find helpful, especially when it comes to texting:

  • Study how someone uses or reacts to certain words; one word can have a totally different meaning to you than it does to someone else
  • Take advantage of punctuation, abbreviations, emojis, GIFs, or stickers to add a tone to otherwise bland, vague or harsh sentences (“We can talk about this later” vs. “LOL, we can talk about this later :P”)
  • If you cannot meet in person, send video clips, voice notes, or make a phone/video call if this will get your tone across better than just text
  • Be very unassuming, even if it means being redundant; ask questions like “What did you mean by that?” “Can you elaborate?” or “Do you understand what I mean?”

Overall, weigh your words because they hold a lot of power, whether they are spoken, written, or typed. If disposing of words as freely as the air you breathe has never gotten you into conflict, then by all means, do what works for you; but for those of us who have been on either end of a misunderstanding, being more careful about how we verbalize our views can save a lot of trouble.

Emotional Intelligence – Why Is It So Important?

the cover of a book called "Tom Norman: Emotional Intelligence" with a photo of a woman from the back in a cornfield, her arms raised

Image Credit

Emotional intelligence refers to the ability to perceive, control and evaluate emotions. What I find so amazing is that some people are born with it and some people learn it along the way. Although some researchers say you either have it or you don’t.

The following excerpt by Jessica Cambridge and Tom Norman discusses the importance of emotional intelligence:

Chapter 1: An Overview on Emotional Intelligence

Emotional Intelligence (also known as EQ) is the person’s ability to manage, use, identify and understand emotions in optimistic ways to overcome struggles, have compassion with others, resolve conflict, relieve stress and communicate effectively. EQ creates an impact in various aspects of our lives, such as the way we behave and interact with other people.

If you have a high EQ, you can recognize your own emotional state as well as others. Your EQ serves as your level of understanding the emotional aspect of relating with people in order to establish genuine relationships, achieve greater success at work and live a more fulfilling life.

Why EQ Is Very Important?

As we all know, it’s not only the smartest people that are the most fulfilled and successful in life. Perhaps you know someone who is 100% academically-inclined but he or she doesn’t know how to value personal relationships. Having intellectual intelligence (or IQ) is not enough to become successful in life. An above average IQ can get you to college – true! But in the end it’s your EQ that will help you handle the emotions, anxiety and stress of college life especially during examinations.

Emotional intelligence affects:

Your relationship with others – By controlling and understanding your emotions, you’ll be able to express how you understand and feel the emotions coming from your family, friends and work colleagues. Also, this allows you to communicate with them more effectively and develop a meaningful work and personal life.

  • Your mentality – Unmanaged stress creates impact in your mentality, making you susceptible to depression and anxiety. If you cannot manage or understand your emotions, there is a good chance that you will suffer from mood swings which can ruin work or personal relationships and leave you feeling isolated.
  • Your physical being – If you are unable to overcome stress, this can lead to severe health problems. Unmanaged stress speeds up the aging process, contributes to infertility, raises blood pressure, suppresses the body’s immune system and increases the risk of stroke and heart attack. In line with this, the crucial step to improving your EQ is by learning how to manage stress levels in your body.
  • Your work performance – Having an EQ helps you shove the social complexities of your workplace, lead and encourage workmates and most importantly, excel in your performance. Today, most companies view emotional intelligence as important as their employees’ technical ability hence they require EQ tests when hiring.

Personally, I think that emotional intelligence can be developed and that we can train out minds to think in a rational way. That means, taking time to think things through before acting.