One problem that often pops its head in couples’ therapy is someone not “hearing” what the other person is saying. The person is “listening,” but they don’t “hear” it right. Does that make sense? (See what I did there?) Sometimes we assume we know what the other person is saying without actually paying attention to the words being said and and other times we “hear” the words, but they don’t compute the way the speaker wants them to be interpreted. The same thing happens in reading books like the Bible; people can interpret the same words very differently. When people are speaking, even tone can be misinterpreted. I remember holding up a really heavy rock and while straining I told the person with me to put a block of wood under it and they told me not to be so mean. The problem was I wasn’t being “mean”; in fact, I couldn’t have said it any other way because I was in pain while speaking. Oddly enough, assuming I was angry and accusing me of being mean made me angry and want to be mean. If you’ve ever had to something you say twisted and used to make you sound terrible, you’ll know how surprisingly painful it is. An accusation like the one I experienced ultimately damages trust because I was shown I couldn’t speak freely with this person and no matter what I said in the future there was always a lingering risk of it being misinterpreted. Unless it was addressed, in the future I couldn’t relax around them as I would be forced to constantly filter what I said thereby limiting how close we could be.
It’s amazing how mishearing someone can be so hurtful, especially when the person mishearing doesn’t realize how hurtful they’re being; they just see how they were “attacked.” Ultimately, the accuser has made a completely unnecessary problem, which will increase future problems because both people will now be a little more guarded with each other and possibly with others.
More recently while talking with my mom, sister, and wife I jokingly said, “When the new baby arrives we’re going to be extra busy, so we’re going to have to get Gracie (my two year old) watching more TV.” Both my mom and sister caught the sarcasm (something I’m known for), but my wife went straight to defending how she tries not to let Gracie watch too much TV like I had insinuated she lets Gracie watch too much TV. It made for an awkward moment. Around that same time, after a video therapy session in my office downstairs (the reality of the pandemic) I went upstairs and said, “We need to come up with a better set up because it’s too noisy downstairs.” Once again, my wife went straight to defending herself. I was very thrown off because I couldn’t have said this phrase any better, especially because I said “we” or even look at her to insinuate, “and by ‘we’ I mean you.” When she accused me of sounding harsh, I was really thrown off because I said this to her very calmly; why? Because I was calm, which is how I speak when I am calm. Somehow, however, she managed to hear something completely different. In her defence, she’s a couple weeks away from giving birth, so she is emotionally and physically at her worst. At a time like this, I need to be quicker to give her grace for her interpretation because of how uncomfortable she is.
This event brought up an important lesson: Be careful how you hear. A common lesson I teach is don’t take things personally. It’s like when a baby cries; we’re not supposed to take it personally. Instead, we should consider what the baby is trying to communicate, and adults aren’t that different. We cry and scream and have terrible moments and it’s just because something is off that needs to be addressed; it often has nothing to do with the other person. For instance, even if my wife calls me a stupid idiot, in a perfect world, I would engage her in a conversation asking her about why she is so upset and help her feel heard, validated, and loved (all the cheesy sounding stuff therapy teaches). Taking it personally will only make me angry and ultimately act like a “stupid idiot” (me responding wrong) “Don’t call me stupid!” – and fight ensues. Similarly, we can take people mishearing us personally, which adds its own issues.
In order to not take people mishearing us as personally and to better address why people mishear in the first place, it is important to consider reasons why someone could do this like the following list offers:
- The listener simply broke the rule of not taking it personally.
- The listener’s hungry, tired, emotionally exhausted, hormonal, or in pain (or pregnant).
- The listener’s distracted.
- There is a language difference (e.g. two people use a word or phrase differently like “That’s sick”; some people say this to indicate someone is “sick” and some people use it to indicate they have terrible English skills).
- The listener’s overly positive.
- The listener’s a negative person who sees and/or expects the worst in everything.
- The listener’s going through a bad period (day or year) and they see the worst in everything.
- The listener’s really insecure.
- The listener has some type of insecurity triggered (e.g. topic, person speaking, etc.).
- The listener’s transferring some childhood issue.
- The listener has been trained and/or role modeled to react this way.
- The listener has been surrounded by mean people most of their lives and are usually attacked.
- The listener has never been around mean people and constantly anticipating it’ll happen like people who constantly anticipate their lives to fall apart.
- The listener doesn’t follow the communication tool of saying “Yes and” as taught in improv.
- The listener doesn’t ask clarifying questions before reacting.
- The listener’s extremely sensitive.
- The listener is having a panic response.
- The listener has a problem with being judgemental and condescending.
- The listener’s not really paying attention to what’s said
- The listener’s brain is translating it wrong.
- The listener wants to feel dominance and any hint of this imbalance not being in place sets them off.
- The listener misinterprets obedience and submissiveness with respect, which leads to them being angry when people don’t give them their way and/or treat them special.
- The listener subconsciously loves drama.
- The listener wants to be angry at something.
- The listener’s projecting their self anger/hatred onto the speaker.
- The listener is a spoiled, bitter, and/or mean person, so they assume everyone else is as well.
- The listener thinks the speaker evil.
- The listener benefits by making others think the speaker is evil.
- The speaker doesn’t realize what they’re saying is actually mean (e.g. I’ve had people call others f’ing idiots and then wonder why the other person doesn’t want to talk to them again).
This list isn’t exhaustive, but it gives a good idea that people can mishear for different reasons. If someone mishears you, it’s good to consider this list and pick the most likely reasons as a starting point for addressing this in the future even if it means knowing this person simply isn’t safe or asking a question later when things are calm like “When you were hurt by what I said, to clarify, do you think I’m a mean person, just having a bad moment, or is there another reason you assumed I was being mean that wasn’t about me?”
This week, may you consider how you can help how you can be heard better and prevent unnecessary fights.
Rev Chad David, ChadDavid.ca, learning to love dumb people (like me)