Talking sense: How to always say what you mean and avoid 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.

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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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