What Are You Trying to Say?

Sometimes I’m really grateful for blog comments, because they can get me thinking about things that are important to me. Recently, a comment was shared by Edith on my May 6 Toxic Negativity post. In addition to some lovely personal sharing, she made this point:

 I’d be interested to hear more about what you get out of communication as well, because I believe most people do it to exchange and amplify emotions they wish to experience whereas while I do enjoy exchanging wanted emotions I mostly want to exchange ideas so sometimes I bring up something negative because I want to solve it, without realizing that not all problems are solvable and that not chewing on it might be better. 

Blog comment, July 30, 2020

This is the kind of topic a person with my background in linguistics and pragmatics lives for. What Edith’s wanting to know about is not what the things I say mean (semantics) but what I’m trying to do with my words (pragmatics). Guess what leads to confusion and mis-communication? When you say something with one intent, and your communication partner interprets it another way.

Here’s an example:

Me: There’s Alfred hair all over the floor.
Lee: Hey, I’ve been doing the books all day – I don’t have time to sweep.

So, maybe I was just noticing that the hair is there, not judging Lee’s housekeeping skills. Or, maybe I was thinking I should be doing some sweeping. Or maybe I was actually judging Lee. How to tell?

Alfred DOES shed a lot.

Well, if we were talking in person, Lee could tell by my tone of voice (stern, teasing, surprised), or he could see by my actions that I was heading to get a broom or crossing my arms in irritation. Those are among the many ways we can infer motivation to other people’s speech.

One method of communication we aren’t using so much these days. Photo by @Nodar via Twenty20

But these days, a lot of our communication comes via text, Twitter, Facebook comments, messenger app, or email. We lack a lot of those tone of voice and mannerisms tools for conveying additional meaning. We do have ALL CAPS and emojis, of course. But you can easily see how it can be a lot harder to figure out what someone is actually trying to convey outside the literal words they’ve typed.

I’m pretty sure Edith has been reading a lot of emotion-charged content lately, especially on Facebook/Twitter, etc. I see a LOT of content that repeats time-worn phrases or buzzwords that do seem to me that they aren’t intent on conveying information, but rather to vent, convey frustration, state which “team” they are on or show their disapproval of others. I even see them getting irritated when folks want to talk about what they actually SAY.

Yep, sometimes technology obscures intended meaning. Image by @Mehaniq via Twenty20

In fact, I often see that when people are genuinely wanting information, they specifically say so. They’ll say, “I really want to know,” or something like it. So, it seems to me that a lot of us are interpreting things we read and even hear as just folks blowing off steam.

That’s great unless you’re someone like Edith, who doesn’t work that way, and really just wants to respond to what the words are saying, not underlying implications.

What to Do?

Well, one thing that helps is to ignore people who just seem to be blowing off steam. They don’t really want to exchange ideas, information, or heaven forbid, facts/evidence.

If you think someone may actually want to be conveying information or getting your input, though, you can always try my favorite from back when I helped mothers breastfeed, “active listening.” It includes the technique where you paraphrase what you think the other person is trying to say, and get confirmation or clarification. You say something like, “What I hear you saying is X; is that right?” and the person either confirms or explains. (Summarizing, below)

Thanks to Education Corner for the graphic.

While this can get annoying REAL fast if you repeat it throughout a conversation, used sparingly it can head off those occasions where you get ten minutes into a heated discussion only to realize you were talking about different things.

You can always try the reflecting part of active listening, “When you say X, it makes me feel Y,” which is supposed to be better than blaming, name-calling, or labeling (for example, “That was stupid”). The idea is that you’re pointing out that the words are the problem, not the person saying them. This is another technique that can easily backfire (So, don’t say, “When you say those Confederate statues are your beloved heritage, it makes me feel like you don’t think black lives matter,” because that conversation will turn ugly very quickly.)

This takes me back to the first option, which is ignoring stuff you know isn’t really about exchanging information. Occasionally, with people I know or am related to, I will ask if they really want to start a conversation about Topic X, because I actually do know something about it and can share information. There have been times where one of us learns something that affects our feelings one way or another or gets us to re-evaluate and think about the topic based on new evidence, which is the goal of a good discussion, isn’t it? (That is opposed to a good venting session, the goal of which is to get hearty agreement that our way is RIGHT, and those other people are doofuses. Sometimes we need these, but we need to know when we are in a venting or information exchange interaction!)

Fill in the blank, venting, chatting, lecturing…

I guess my conclusion is there’s lots of reasons to communicate, and lots of WAYS to communicate in addition to the face value of the words in sentences. To succeed, whether you want to share information, educate, insult, or vent, you need to first agree on the mutual goal. Otherwise, we’re just talking (or typing) at each other rather than with each other.

I don’t know if any of this has helped at all. There is more I could say, but no time to say it, since lunch is over, and I need to go to some more work meetings and nod my head and smile a lot or help someone solve a problem (I like the latter kind best).


The Next Day

Someone said they couldn’t follow this well, because it’s written, not spoken. Then I couldn’t tell if they were joking or serious, because there were no emoticons. I rest my case.

Author: Sue Ann (Suna) Kendall

The person behind The Hermits' Rest blog and many others. I'm a certified Texas Master Naturalist and love the nature of Milam County. I manage technical writers in Austin, help with Hearts Homes and Hands, a personal assistance service, in Cameron, and serve on three nonprofit boards. You may know me from La Leche League, knitting, iNaturalist, or Facebook. I'm interested in ALL of you!

2 thoughts on “What Are You Trying to Say?”

  1. Makes me think of the advise I think of most often from the 4 Agreements: “Never Assume.” We may or may not be on the right track w/what another is thinking.

    Carry on.

    Liked by 1 person

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