Updated: Sep 1, 2021
Have you ever been upset by an email from a colleague? Or from a friend? Or a family member? Of course, we all have.
My undergrad days were spent studying Theology and Psychology – including a course of study called ‘Behavioral Science.’ Science is about causes and effects, and predictable outcomes. Behavior, it turns out, is often predictable. We all have unspoken triggers that dictate our reactions to what we hear, but our reactions are based entirely on what we think we heard. Common problems in communication frequently result from a hearer’s perception of what is said, rather than from the message itself.
The Writer's Intent
It is actually impossible to know what a writer was thinking about and intending to convey in their writing. This is especially true in email or social media where the writer's context is even more obscured. We can mistake irony for plain speech, misunderstand who or what they are talking about, interpret well-meaning advice as criticism, or even misunderstand the meaning of a word – for example, when they wrote: “that’s incredible,” did they mean it was “amazing” or “not credible?” Does the phrase “I see,” mean they understand your point, or that they are detecting some implicit motive that you didn’t intend at all?
When we add the fact that each author is from a different family background, possibly from a different culture, language, country, religion, generation or time period, there are so many possibilities for misunderstanding that it is easy to see why human communication is a minefield.
Chew on that for a while and think of the times where we might have reacted negatively to something we read.
Hearer Understanding is the Problem
In the study of literary criticism, there is something called the “Reader-Response” theory, whereby each reader can read the same material but understand it or absorb it differently. It is one reason why two people can read the same novel and one thinks that it is trash and the other thinks it is brilliant. Which one is right? For the readers they both are.
The place where a writer and reader connect is always personal. Writing, in particular, has a unique ability to reach past the intellect and to touch the heart. It is a writer’s responsibility to be as clear as possible, but it is the responsibility of the reader to understand.
Hearing with Grace is the Solution
The beginning of understanding is to first check anger and assumed intent at the door. Our initial reaction is to take offense at anything that we perceive as a personal attack, this is natural and normal. It is actually unnatural for us to stop and assess whether what we have perceived was, in fact, an attack at all. We have to make a conscious effort to hear what the speaker is trying to say -- shaking off all the presumptions and baggage. It is critical to our relationships, as well as to our emotional and spiritual health, to respond properly. Giving the benefit of the doubt is a great starting point.
James 1:19 “… let everyone be swift to hear, slow to speak, slow to wrath”
Ephesians 4:32 “Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.”