Talking sense: How to always say what you mean and prevent misunderstandings

Communicating effectively is not about what we say; it's about being aware of a whole host of non-verbal messages that we're always sending out

Man and woman sitting across and talking, friendly

You know the feeling: You meet someone for the first time, and it’s as if you’ve known each other all your lives. You know just what she means; she knows just what you mean. You laugh at the same time. You feel terrific; and you think she’s terrific too.

But you also know the other feeling: You meet someone, you try to be friendly, to make a good impression but everything goes wrong. There are uncomfortable silences. You fish for topics. You bump into each other as you both start at once and then both stop. You try to lighten the mood and he looks as if you punched him in the stomach. Whatever you do to make things better makes them worse.

If conversation always followed the first pattern, I wouldn’t have to write this article. If it always followed the second, no one would ever talk to anyone and nothing would get done. Talk is mostly somewhere in the middle. Sometimes what people say seems to make perfect sense and sometimes it sounds a little odd. If someone doesn’t quite get our point, we let it go, the talk continues, and no one pays much attention.

But if an important outcome hangs on the conversation—if it’s a job interview or a business meeting—the results can be very serious. And if the conversation is with the most important person in your life, the little hitches can become big ones. Then, you can’t not pay attention.

If this happens all the time—at home, at work, or in routine day-to-day encounters, so that you feel misunderstood all the time and never quite understand what others are getting at—you start to doubt your own ability, or even your sanity.

Sometimes what people say seems to make perfect sense and sometimes it sounds a little odd

For example, Natasha is applying for a job as office manager at the headquarters of an ice-cream distributor—a position she’s well qualified for. Her last job, although it was called ‘administrative assistant’, actually involved running the whole office, and she did a great job. But at the interview, she never gets a chance to explain this. The interviewer does all the talking, Natasha leaves feeling frustrated—and she doesn’t get the job. Or at home: Tina and Ajay have a good marriage. They love each other and are quite happy. But a recurring source of tension is that Tina often feels that Ajay doesn’t really listen to her. He asks her a question, but before she can answer, he asks another—or starts to answer it himself. When they get together with Ajay’s friends, the conversation goes so fast, Tina can’t get a word in edgewise. Afterwards, Ajay complains that she was too quiet, though she certainly isn’t quiet when she gets together with her friends. Ajay thinks it’s because she doesn’t like his friends, but the only reason Tina doesn’t like them is that she feels they ignore her—and she can’t find a way to get into their conversation.

Sometimes strains in a conversation reflect real differences between people: they are angry with each other; they really are at cross-purposes. But sometimes strains and kinks develop when there really are no basic differences of opinion, when everyone is sincerely trying to get along. This is the type of miscommunication that drives people crazy. And it is usually caused by differences in conversational style. To say something and see it taken to mean something else; to try to be helpful and be thought pushy; to try to be considerate and be called cold; to try to establish a rhythm so that talk will glide effortlessly about the room, only to end up feeling like a conversational clod who can’t pickup the beat—such failure at talk undermines one’s sense of competence and of being a right sort of person.

Kiran’s mother-in-law had the habit of coming to visit with her dog: a cute but nervous and not yet house-trained little creature who barked at Kiran’s dog and caused a general ruckus. Kiran tried politely to let her mother-in-law know that she didn’t want her to bring the dog. She said, “You shouldn’t bring your dog because it’s not fair to him. He gets upset and barks at our dog, and then you have to lock him up, so he’s not comfortable.” The mother-in-law thanked Kiran for her concern but assured her that the dog was fine during the visits. So Kiran had to be more direct and say that she didn’t like having the dog there. The mother-in-law didn’t take offence, but Kiran was angry because she felt her mother-in-law had forced her to be rude. She complained to her husband, Dev, “Why do I always have to spell things out for her?”

It wasn’t until Kiran heard my explanation of indirectness that it occurred to her that the problem was different conversational styles rather than her mother-in-law’s obstinate character. She saw for the first time that what she had thought of as being polite was actually indirect and possibly not clear communication. For his part, Dev often offended and upset Kiran’s mother by being too direct, by saying For example, “I don’t want to do that” instead of “Well, I’ll see what I can do,” refusing only after giving the impression of having tried.

What some would call honesty was rudeness to Kiran. For example, when a new friend, Priya, called to bow out of a dinner invitation by explaining she was just too tired, Kiran was offended. Just being tired didn’t seem sufficient reason to back out, so giving it as a reason seemed to show callousness towards the invitation. An appropriate excuse would have been that Priya didn’t feel well or that something unexpected had come up—whether or not it was true.

Kiran never repeated the invitation, and she invented the appropriate excuses when Priya invited her. And that was the end of the budding friendship.

Sometimes strains and kinks develop when there really are no basic differences of opinion, when everyone is sincerely trying to get along

Talking makes our worlds

In this way, our personal worlds are shaped by conversation—not only with family, friends, and co-workers but also in public. Whether the world seems a pleasant or a hostile place is largely the result of the cumulative impression of seemingly insignificant daily encounters: dealings with shop assistants, bank clerks, bureaucratic officials, cashiers, and telephone operators.

When these relatively minor exchanges are smooth and pleasant, we feel [without thinking about it] that we are doing things right. But when they are strained, confusing, or seemingly rude, our mood can be ruined and our energy drained. We wonder what’s wrong with them—or us. Indirectness, ways of using questions or refusing politely, are aspects of conversational style.

We also send out signals by how fast we talk, how loudly, by our intonation and choice of words, as well as by what we actually say and when. These linguistic gears are always turning, driving our conversations, but we don’t see them because we think in terms of intentions [rude, polite, interested] and character [she’s nice, he’s not]. Despite good intentions and good character all around—our own [which we take for granted] and others’ [which we easily doubt]—we find ourselves caught in miscommunication because the very methods, and the only methods, we have of communicating are not, as they seem, self-evident and ‘logical’. Instead, they differ from person to person, even within an apparently quite homogeneous society.

A lot of seemingly inexplicable behaviour—signs of coming closer or pulling back—occurs because others react to our style of talking in ways that lead them to conclusions we never suspect.

Talking sense: How to always say what you mean and avoid misunderstandings
We send out signals by how fast we talk, how loudly, by our intonation and choice of words, as well as by what we actually say and when

Can we do something about this?

What can we do to avoid such misunderstandings in fleeting or intimate conversations? In some cases, we can alter our styles with certain other people. And we may try to clarify our intentions by explaining them, though that can be tricky. We usually don’t know when there has been a misunderstanding. And even if we do, few people are willing to go back and pick apart what they’ve just said or heard. Just letting others know that we’re paying attention to how they talk can make them nervous.

Trying to be direct with someone who isn’t used to it just makes things worse—as Kiran felt angry that her mother-in-law forced her to be rude by ‘spelling things out’. People intent on finding hidden meanings will look more and more desperately for the unexpressed intentions underlying our intended ‘direct’ communication.

Often the most effective repair is to change the frame—the definition or the tone of what’s going on—not by talking about it directly but by speaking in a different way, exhibiting different assumptions, and hence triggering different responses in the person we’re talking to.

But the most important thing is to be aware that misunderstandings can arise, and with them tempers, when no one is crazy and no one is unkind and no one is intentionally dishonest. We can learn to stop and remind ourselves that others may not mean what we heard them say. Life is a matter of dealing with other people, in little matters and cataclysmic ones, and that means a series of conversations.

This article is meant to assure you that when conversations seem to be causing more problems than they’re solving you aren’t losing your mind. And you may not have to lose [if you don’t want to] your friendship, your partner, or your money to the ever-gaping jaws of differences in conversational style.

Life is a matter of dealing with other people, in little matters and cataclysmic ones, and that means a series of conversations

Metamessages: It’s not what you say but how you say it

You’re sitting in a coffee shop or at a party—and suddenly you feel lonely. You wonder, “What do all these people find to talk about that’s so important?” Usually the answer is, Nothing. Nothing that’s so important. But people don’t wait until they have something important to say in order to talk.

Very little of what is said is important for the information expressed in the words. But that doesn’t mean that the talk isn’t important. It’s important, as a way of showing that we are involved with each other. Our talk is saying something about our relationship.

Information conveyed by the meanings of words is the message. What is communicated about relationships—attitudes toward each other, the occasion, and what we are saying—is the metamessage. And it’s metamessages that we react to most strongly. If someone says, “I’m not angry,” and his jaw is set hard and his words seem to be squeezed out in a hiss, you won’t believe the message that he’s not angry; you’ll believe the metamessage conveyed by the way he said it. Comments like “It’s not what you said but the way that you said it” or “Why did you say it like that?” are responses to metamessages of talk.

Involvement and Independence

The philosopher Schopenhauer gave an oft-quoted example of porcupines trying to get through a cold winter.

They huddle together for warmth, but their sharp quills prick each other, so they pull away. But then they get cold. They have to keep adjusting their closeness and distance to keep from freezing and from getting pricked by their fellow porcupines—the source of both comfort and pain.

We need to get close to each other to have a sense of community, to feel we’re not alone in the world. But we need to keep our distance from each other to preserve our independence, so others don’t impose on or engulf us. This duality reflects the human condition. We need other people to survive, but we want to survive as individuals.

Another way to look at this duality is that we are all the same—and all different. There is comfort in being understood and pain in the impossibility of being understood completely.

We balance the conflicting needs for involvement and independence by hinting and picking up hints, by refraining from saying some things and surmising what other people mean from what they refrain from saying. Linguists refer to the way people mean what they don’t exactly say as indirectness.

There is comfort in being understood and pain in the impossibility of being understood completely

Why we don’t say what we mean

Woman getting frustrated with her husband
Sometimes strains and kinks develop even between people with no basic differences of opinion

Diya told Atul she was hurt because he fixed himself a snack without offering her any. So he offered her the snack he had just fixed. She turned it down. He asked why. Because he hadn’t prepared it for her. Atul was exasperated: Was she hungry or not?

To Diya, whether or not she was hungry was beside the point; the point was whether or not Atul thought about her when he fixed himself a snack, which showed whether or not he cared about her as much as she cared about him. She would never feed herself without asking him, “Would you like some?” In fact, she might not even have a snack if he didn’t want one.

Being direct and honest wouldn’t help here. Diya could say straight out that she’s hungry—or isn’t—but that has nothing to do with it. She could say straight out that she wants to know Atul cares. But she can only know he cares if he thinks of her on his own. What good is it if you order someone to say “I love you” and he parrots it? It’s no good at all telling people what you want if what you want is for them to know without your telling them. That’s the rapport benefit of indirectness.

This drama is played out in the birthday present routine as well. Anyone could get you what you want for your birthday if you told him what you want. In fact, you could get it for yourself, if it were the gift that mattered. What really matters is the evidence that the person knows you well enough to figure out what you would like, and cares enough to spend the time getting it.

An instance of indirect communication

An Indian woman explained how she and her father communicated. If she wanted to do something, like go to a dance, she had to ask her father for permission. He never said no. But she could tell from the way he said yes whether or not he meant it. If he said something like “Yes, of course, go” she knew he thought it was a good idea. If he said something like “If you want, you can go” she understood that he didn’t think it was a good idea, and she wouldn’t go. His tone of facial and all the elements of conversational style gave her clues as to how he felt about her going.

Why didn’t he just tell her that he didn’t think she should go? Why wasn’t he “honest”? Well, he did tell her, in a way that was clear to both her and him. To the extent that we can even talk about honesty in communicative habits, any system that gets meaning across is honest.

It’s easy to see that the Indian father might prefer not to appear tyrannical. What’s more, he might not feel tyrannical, but might genuinely feel that he didn’t say no; his daughter chose not to go of her own free will. How much better to have a daughter who chooses to behave properly rather than one who simply obeys… And the daughter herself might prefer it to appear that she is choosing not to go. In fact, she may actually feel that she is choosing, since her father never actually said she couldn’t go. How much better to choose to act properly than to be forced into obeying... So the indirectness of their communication contributes to the appearance, and probably also the feeling, of rapport.

To the extent that we can even talk about honesty in communicative habits, any system that gets meaning across is honest

Why we can’t say what we mean

If our attempts to communicate by indirectness keep tripping us up and sending us sprawling, why do we keep trying? Why don’t we just say what we mean—directly?

We’ve seen that it’s more satisfying to communicate indirectly; it would be boring simply to say what we mean, and we’d lose the metamessage of rapport. It’s useful to cover ourselves by not going on record with what we think. But even if we wanted to be direct, we couldn’t, for the following reasons:

First, deciding to tell the truth leaves open the question, which of the infinite aspects of the truth to tell.

Second, being direct isn’t enough because countless assumptions underlie anything we say or hear. We don’t think of stating them precisely because they are assumptions.

Third, stating just what we mean would often be hurtful to others.

And finally, differing styles make honesty opaque. Let’s look at examples of why we can’t say what we mean.

Ellen returned to her hometown for her sister’s wedding. At the reception she talked to a lot of relatives and old high-school friends. She told no untruths and had no intention of telling any, yet she gave different people very different accounts of her life as a graduate student. And she walked away from some conversations feeling she had misrepresented herself.

In some conversations, Ellen stressed how well she was doing: She liked the city she lived in, the courses she was taking, the new friends she had made. She expressed satisfaction with her life and herself and painted a rosy picture of them. But in talking to other people, Ellen painted a different picture. She stressed the negative aspects of her life, the danger and discomforts of living in a big city and the long hours of study.

Boss discussing in the office
Being direct isn’t enough because countless assumptions underlie anything we say or hear

Both pictures were true. That is, they were both composites assembled from pieces of truth. Yet both were untrue, insofar as they omitted the pieces included in the other account, as well as innumerable pieces included in neither. There is no way that Ellen, or anyone, could tell every aspect of the truth. When constructing a story for a specific occasion, we instinctively identify a main point or goal and include the details that contribute to it. Although Ellen didn’t consciously decide to do so, she painted a positive picture of her life when she spoke to relatives and her parents’ friends. She didn’t want them to worry about her or repeat to her parents anything that might cause them concern.

The negative view of her life was constructed for her old friends from high school, women her age who were married and bored and slightly envious of her life of independence and intellectual stimulation. She wanted, instinctively, to forestall rather than incite their envy.

There is not world enough or time to state every detail, every aspect of the truth, even if we could keep them all in our minds—which we can’t. Selecting words to speak and information to give always entails choices among vast alternatives. The accrual of the details that are chosen presents some aspects of the truth, inevitably falsifying or omitting others. It is impossible to tell the whole truth.

What you can and can’t do with conversational style

Humans want to understand their own and others’ behaviour. For humans in our society this often means seeking psychological explanations. If distress is extreme, they may seek psychological treatment. Plenty of situations and individuals warrant this. But before trying this drastic measure, it’s a good idea to ask whether the problem may simply be differences in conversational style. If it is, it can be treated at home. If pain persists, see your doctor. But you may find that fewer visits to the doctor are really needed.

The first step is to understand your own style: What are you doing when you communicate? What effect is it having on how others talk to you? How is your style a response to their way of talking to you? A way to help the process of observation is tape recording. With permission, of course, you can tape your conversations and listen to the tape to get a better understanding of how you and others talked and the effect this had on the interaction. If you aren’t comfortable taping, or if the people you talk to aren’t comfortable being taped, you can just observe.

As you get a sense of your own conversational style, there are ways you can adjust it. Here are some. You will doubtless think of others yourself.

The first step is to understand your own style: What are you doing when you communicate?

If you expect people to continue talking while you’re listening, but you see that someone keeps stopping when you respond so that you seem to be interrupting, you can back off and listen more quietly. If you find yourself doing all the talking, you may try counting to six after you think the other person has finished or failed to take a turn, to make sure she isn’t just gearing up to say something.

If you feel yourself being continually cut off, you may try to speed up, leaving smaller gaps between your turn and someone else’s, and within your own talk. And you may force yourself not to stop when others start talking, but to talk right over them. If that doesn’t work, you can try using a nonverbal sign of having something to say—like waving your hand or leaning forward.

If you feel put off because someone is asking you too many questions, rather than evade the questions, you may try asking questions yourself, or pick a topic of interest to you and talk about it. From the other side, if you are asking questions to get someone talking, and he is answering in monosyllables or less, rather than asking more and different questions, you may stop asking them entirely and either volunteer information or let there be silence. No matter what the effect is, doing something different will at least change the interaction and stop the spiral of clashing styles.

Metacommunicating: A powerful tool

A powerful tool is metacommunicating: talking about communication, with or without using the terms metamessage, frame, or conversational style. You may say something about what’s going on—not, preferably, something judgemental like “Stop interrupting me” or “Give me a chance to talk,” but something that focusses on your intentions, like “I want to say something but I need more time to get going” or “When I chime in, I don’t expect you to stop. Go on.” Another form of metacommunication is naming the frame: “I feel like we’re having a shouting match. Can we slow it down?”

You may also ask the other person what she or he expected in response to a comment or question. You may be surprised by what you hear. In addition, putting into words what you expected in response to what you said forces you to consider the other person’s point of view.

The most powerful way to change interaction is to change the frame without making it explicit: reframing by talking or acting in a different way. Reframing is a repair job that often can be done most effectively behind the scenes.

No matter what the effect is, doing something different will at least change the interaction and stop the spiral of clashing styles

Use with Caution

Ironically, it is easier to make these changes and improve communication with others we don’t know well and don’t talk to frequently, than it is with partners and family members. For one thing, it takes effort to convert processes that are normally automatic into conscious ones. Having to make this effort all the time, every day, can be exhausting.

Even more significant than your way of speaking is, in a sense, your identity. Talking differently makes one feel like a different sort of person. Some people, furthermore, persist in focussing on the aspects of speech they have always been aware of—accent, vocabulary, and rules of grammar—and cling to the conviction that their way of doing things is the right way.

Conversational style is normally invisible but not unconscious. People often say, spontaneously, “It’s not what you said but the way you said it,” even if they can’t put their finger on just what it was about the way you said it that they reacted to.

Knowing about conversational style gives names to what were previously felt as vague forces. Once pointed out, they have a ring of familiarity and truth.

Adapted from That’s Not What I Meant!: How Conversational Style Makes or Breaks Relationships, HarperCollins, 1986.©Deborah Tannen. Used with permission of the author.


A version of this article was first published in the September 2013 issue of Complete Wellbeing.

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