15

The problem

I've spent many years gauging my interactions with other people, and a commonly reoccurring theme is the other person already has presumed what I'm saying or going to say, or has drawn up some imaginary alternate scenario that doesn't jive, and isn't listening to the actual contents of my words.

Things I've tried

The frequency suggests the problem is on my end, but I've tried various methods to rectify this to no avail. So far I've tried and failed with:

  • Emphasising key details that are different; they continue to talk about their own imaginary version.
  • Asking if they understand what I've said; which the classic line is 'yes'.
  • Asking a follow-up question to test; amazingly they parrot back exactly what I've said, but they ignore the actual content of what was said.
  • Simplifying statements; I rarely use 'technobabble'. The shorter the statement, the more likely I am to be interrupted with their own assumption.

None of these have worked.

Examples

Some examples, if ironically what I'm saying here isn't understood. Note that context, person, etc is irrelevant; I've had it happen a wide variety of situations.

Example 1:

Me: 'the white kettle is a lower wattage than the current one'

Family member: 'the new one? We should probably use it.'

Me: 'I don't know if it's new, but it is the white kettle on top of the fridge.'

[Family member uses the 'new kettle' which is stainless steel grey and wasn't on top of the fridge. I didn't know what it looked like.]

Me (confused): 'Why do you have a stainless steel kettle?' [I check the wattage, find it's the same as the old one; similar model.]

Family member (still acting on their imaginary dialogue of what I said): 'You said the newer one was a lower wattage, didn't you?'

Me (internally facepalming): 'I said the white kettle was lower.'

Example 2:

Me: 'Do we have the docume...'

Manager (interrupting): 'Look, there's no point attacking [X] department because...'

Me: 'No, I'm not talking about attacking [X] department, I wanted to ask do we have any of the documents by the p...'

Manager (interrupting, still going on about 'attacking [X] department'): 'There's no point arguing with them about it!'

Me (trying to ignore derailment): '...Do we have any of the documents by the pharmacy signe...'

Manager (still going off on his imaginary tangent of me 'attacking' a department): 'Look, we can argue with them until we're blue in the face.'

Me (frustrated): 'I just wanted to confirm we've got this [dodgy development thing] signed off by the appropriate people' (IE senior management)

Manager: 'We don't worry about that. That's not our problem.' (this is despite the fact said manager encourages the sign-off on development processes and it is our problem.)

Me (frustrated): 'But do we have some sort of documentation of orders from somebody above us telling us to do that?'

Manager: 'Like I said, not our problem.' (Even though, clearly, it is.)

Summary

I find it incredibly frustrating to have to constantly restate myself, have to re-explain points, and I get blamed for being irritable (and seen as anti-social) as a result. These are just two out of a sea of many examples. I find it occurs in the medium of written statements too.

How do I deal with people who aren't listening to what I'm actually saying? How do I get them to take onboard the content of what I'm saying?

12

I often witnessed this kind of misunderstanding as an outsider or the third person in a conflict. My experience was that those two people didn't understand each other because they were talking about two different topics without realizing it.

The simple truth is that we cannot read each other's minds. Instead we use language to transfer our thoughts to one another. Sometimes errors happen during the translation of words into thoughts. The best way (in my experience) to eliminate this error is to stop the train of thoughts for a second and validate it.

Wait a second. Are we talking about the same thing here? [short pause] I don't know which kettle is the "new one" but I'm talking about the one standing on that fridge over there. The white, oval one with the fancy lid that has a price tag of XXX.

Asking a direct question and adding a short pause (short enough that you won't be interrupted by a "yes, of course") disrupts the current train of thought more than a statement, because we are expected to answer questions and therefore think about the possible answers.

Clarifying your thoughts / topic / objective right after that restarts the train of thoughts, but this time directing it towards your thoughts / topic / objective.

A slightly nicer way to to that (and more suited for a buisness situation) would be:

Excuse me, but I think there is a misunderstanding. Are we talking about the same thing? [short pause] I meant to ask whether we had the [dodgy development thing] signed.

In general, it's appropriate to ask this clarification after being misunderstood for the second time.

  • I think the trick you've highlighted is asking the other person to confirm that they're talking about the same thing as I am, which sounds like it should work. I'll give this a try! Thank you! – SSight3 Feb 12 at 17:07
7

I find that this happens when people have preconceived notions of what you might be talking to them about, or what the two sides of the given issue are. I deal with this by acknowledging what they are expecting me to say, making sure that we are both clear on what that conversation would be, and then making it clear that this is not what I am saying.

Taking you example of the kettle, the conversation might go like this:

You: 'the white kettle is a lower wattage than the current one'

Family member: 'the new one? We should probably use it.'

You: 'Oh yes, we have a new one. Is that the white one?'

Family member: 'No, I think it is stainless steel.'

You: 'Ok, I guess you have been using that one. But we also have a white one.'

Family member: 'Yes'

(Here is where you got them to disconnect from their expected conversation, and to join your conversation)

You: 'So the white one - it is the white kettle on top of the fridge - has a lower wattage.


Same with your manager:

You: 'Do we have the docume...'

Manager (interrupting): 'Look, there's no point attacking [X] department because...'

You: 'I guess there is no point in attacking X'

Manager: 'There's no point arguing with them about it!'

You 'Cool. So I will not discuss them. Now, I need to ask you about something else, about that document...'

(You have ended the discussion about X, and you can move to the issue at hand)


Until the other person's expectation is acknowledged and addressed, they will continue to try to squeeze your words into their expectations. After you acknowledge their expectation you can make it clear that that is not what you are talking about, and then get back to what you were trying to say.

2

At my work I have a number of colleagues who are slightly less fluent in English and so misunderstandings are not uncommon. My strategy for these can be to paraphrase myself if the misunderstanding is slight or to force a pause in the conversation if I think its a more fundamental misunderstanding.

I don't believe there is anything particularly special about paraphrasing myself, I think this is the first way anyone learns to deal with misunderstanding, and so will focus more on forcing a pause.

When forcing a pause my goal is to de-escalate the conversation and re-approach it from a calm standpoint for both sides, I do this by saying something like this very calmly:

Wait, hang on a sec, can I [say/ask] something?

The key is to then wait after that until they stop and are waiting for you to say or ask what you wanted. This pause is best used to directly clarify what you think they are misunderstanding, using your first example:

Family member: 'the new one? We should probably use it.'

Me: 'Wait, hang on a sec, I don't know if it's new, but it is the white kettle on top of the fridge.'

  • Certainly it sounds like pausing could work, but often what I find happens is if I 'pause' or allow them to continue their assumption, the person then immediately redirects the conversation elsewhere (on the assumption they've 'answered' the imaginary query I never asked). It's almost like they're on auto-pilot and I'd like to break that 'trance' state. – SSight3 Feb 11 at 21:10
  • 2
    @SSight3 if they try to redirect or continue back on the same track they were I just go back to saying hang on and forcing another pause. Even the most heated discussions can be de-escalated repeating this – BKlassen Feb 11 at 21:38
2

Example 1 seems an honest distraction of your family member, who was probably absent-minded, but example 2 tells a hidden story of you demanding insistently some documents from department [X], probably in a way that's been perceived as an attack. What you want to say is just a simple yes/no question about the availability of the document, but what is perceived by your manager is "no, not again, here comes SSight3 to ask about those documents for the third time this week".

So they are interrupting you, and not really listening to what you are saying because very likely they think the question is settled and you are perceived as a stubborn nuisance to be dealt with rather than a co-worker with needs to be attended. Notice that you are blaming them for not listening to what you are saying, while you are not listening to what they are saying, or you don't understand their point. Your manager thinks there's no point in trying to force department X deliver those documents. It can't be done or it is not worth the fight. So he's saying to you to relax and forget about it and carry on with your duties. If you have work to do which you can do without these documents, go on, and if you don't just stop there. If a deadline is missed because of, it's department's X fault for not delivering the documents in time. That's what your manager is really saying to you.

All in all it sounds like you have some communication problem - not that there's something wrong in what you say, and maybe there's nothing wrong in how you say it, but something related with your general behaviour. See, if I ask my manager about a document I need and they answers with "there's no point in attacking department X about (blah, blah, blah...)" what I surely don't do is to insist by saying something akin to "no, I don't want to attack X, I just want to know if we already have document Y". Their first answer clearly states that I shouldn't have asked again for those documents, and that my manager is clearly aware of the whole issue. By trying to explain yourself you are only projecting the image of someone who doesn't listen.

So, it looks like they think you are the one who doesn't listen, or who stubbornly resist to understand reasons and they are treating you in a somewhat disrespectful way: they don't really pay attention to what you say and they try not to be dragged to long arguments with you. It seems to be a defensive position against you, so maybe you could examine your past actions to see if there is some foundation for their behaviour. How many times have you asked about those documents? Did you receive an answer similar to the one in your example?

Instead of dealing with people who doesn't listen to what you say, I suggest a frame challenge. Why aren't they willing to listen to you? Maybe they think you don't listen to them and are trying to reciprocate? Or, if they find too difficult or tiresome arguing with you about some questions, they may have unilaterally decided the question is over and they are not willing to pay attention to any kind of new arguments or facts you manage to bring to the debate. As you say, the frequency of these things happening to you points that the problem lies with you rather than the rest of the world, but I think that while the root of the problem is communication, it is not something you can fix with a different wording.

You should investigate why they are behaving like that, which can prove difficult because it's likely they aren't really conscious of it. In any case I'd suggest asking directly (to family members or friends, not at work) why they are doing that whenever a new case arises. Don't accuse them though, rather, ask them in a purely curious tone, even funny, if you can muster it, why they aren't paying attention to you. For example, if a situation like your second example happens with a friend of yours:

You: 'Have you make the reservation for [next weekend event]?'

Friend: 'I haven't spoken with [other friend] yet'

Now, instead of 'I wasn't talking about [other friend] but about the reservation', you can ask

'Sorry, am I being too insistent on this, or something? Because I've asked about the reservation, not about [other friend].' (Smile)

The point is (softly) asking about the reasons behind their behaviour, because there can be many different reasons for their lack of listening attention. My wife likes to talk a lot, God bless her, and I'm a very quiet man, and many times when she talks to me for some length my brain just disconnects - I'm not the only husband there, I tell you that. Maybe you talk a lot. Maybe you don't talk a lot, but you insist and repeat a lot on the same topics. Maybe you have a too high pitch of voice. Maybe, sadly, it's your own listening abilities which require enhancing before you ask them to listen to you, and if that's the case the sooner you realize the better. Best of luck.

  • I didn't even get my sentence out before he had presumed it was an 'attack' (and even then, 'attack' is a heavy mischaracterisation, given it refers to suggesting changes). If anything, I was trying to confirm we had valid documentation in-place, so when someone goes 'why isn't [dodgy design decision] working', we can point to who signed it off. If anything, it's defensive. – SSight3 Feb 12 at 17:11
0

Why are they not listening to you? If it is because their emotions are aroused by the topic, then your only solution is to defuse the emotional situation somehow (the details must depend on who they are and on their relationship with you).

But they might not be listening to you because you have not made any impact on them. If they have noticed you at all they are saying to themselves "Whatever...". The solution then is to do something that calls their attention to you and to what you are saying.What that is must depend on who they are on on you, but it certainly could include a rather forceful and loud intervention to attract their attention.

  • Have you done something like that before (a sort of 'intervention' to call attention), if so could you describe that a little? Answers here should be based on expertise, and it'd be great to have an example of how one could put this advice into practice. – Em C Feb 13 at 0:45
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While I've been told I have communication issues because I don't notice the hidden meanings in everyday speech, I feel that most of the people around me have communication issues because they don't notice the words and only recognize the hidden meanings that in many cases aren't even there. By your boss' framing of your stance as an attack, you become agitated. Once you're agitated, everything you say carries the hidden meaning 'must fight other department' to your manager. It may sound hyperbolic to you to frame anything you've talked with him as an attack, but if that's the term he's thinking, you need to realize he's thinking this way.

As others have said, it's important for you to agree regarding the nonsense position. But that having been said, depending on the sort of person your boss is, it may be important that you do so in a calm manner, or maybe even a resigned manner, to convey the side channel message that we're done with this whole attacking nonsense. Once you start in again on your actual purpose, tone your voice to indicate concern, rather than agitation.

It feels to me like this is only an issue with a small subset of people. I think I've only had one boss who seemed to only understand words when said in the right tone. But I've certainly known others like this who weren't in my reporting chain. They were, however, frequently in somebody's reporting chain, so I suspect that this is a trait that is somehow seen as helpful to leadership skills - probably the fact that when there are hidden messages in people's tones, these people are generally very good at figuring out what they are. They're just particularly bad at dealing with people who are very direct. (There are some people who are good at dealing with both sorts of people - my current manager is one of these. But such a person wouldn't have inspired this question.)

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