Lord of the Human Decoder Rings

My husband and I are big foodies: dining has become an adventure. We love sampling new dishes, visiting cool eateries- anything to stretch our palettes. Generally, I’m pretty game for new food territory, but every once in awhile I find a dish that doesn’t hit the spot– hello, bone marrow– and I’m tempted to rate the dish based on a single bite. But if did, I’d be missing what’s around the corner, allowing a single experience to define my perspective.

Miss Misinterpretation

When we interpret the world, we rely on what we can see and feel, gauging what to do next. When it comes to food, books, and entertainment, it isn’t hard to make judgments or even to change our minds. People are another story. We often get caught up in singular impressions, shutting down empathy and amping up misunderstanding. Why is it so hard not to get stuck on single encounters when it comes to social situations? Being misinterpreted by others may be commonplace, but that doesn’t make it any less upsetting. How many times have we realized mid-argument that a conflict is based on misunderstanding? As social beings, we’re weaving through our days on Behavior Analysis permits, zooming from one confounding encounter to the next, riding alongside two of the most irresponsible Driver’s Ed instructors EVER: the fundamental attribution error, and the availability heuristic.

Our Sneaky Brains

As a psychological principle, the attribution error is a human tendency to understand how our own behavior is influenced by emotions, stress, and life events but attribute others’ behavior strictly to personality. Example: a stranger stalks down the sidewalk swearing & scowling = she must be a weird, angry person. Flip the switch to when we growl through the supermarket like the Incredible Hulk: clearly, we’re just having a bad day. Clear as mud because everyone else will be attributing our behavior to a natural Hulk-like state.

Truth: there’s danger in assessing other people’s actions. For all that our friends and family members show us, it’s typically only the tip of the cranial iceberg. Consider how many thoughts and emotions run through our minds in a given day. Gazillions. Now reflect on what percentage we share with the world. Twenty? We can’t share everything–would be akin to asking our friends to ride on a dizzying loop of It’s a Small World, Tower of Terror, Back to the Future, and The Lazy River. But knowing what we don’t know is still a win. Maybe we don’t have to read what others are thinking. Maybe knowing that we’re only seeing 20% is enough to start asking better questions and making fewer assumptions. Easier said than done, but powerful nonetheless.

Recently, I watched three friends gently confront one another about what wasn’t being said and what was being read (facial expressions) as a way to communicate honestly while working on a project. It was an opportunity to discover the truth and honor one another in the process. Their friendship survived and the work product evolved. Win/win. I admire what they accomplished because confrontation, even gentle, is my least favorite communication, but the alternative- BIG FAT AVOIDANCE- has never done me a single favor.

Availability Heuristic

That pesky second influence, availability heuristic, prompts our brains to weigh the likelihood of an event based on how quickly examples come to mind. The more stories we hear about kittens struck by lightning, the more likely we are to never let our furry friends outside in the rain. Doesn’t sound so bad until we connect it to human behavior. Example: after hearing three stories about friends’ breakups that started with the words, “we have to talk”, we’re convinced that any conversation with those words will lead to impending doom. Our friend texts, “we need to talk” and suddenly we’re dodging calls, taking alternate routes around the office, and hiding in our homes. Meanwhile, our previously un-angry friend is now feeling neglected, leading to actual anger and rifts in the relationship. Suddenly, the absence of a conversation that may not have been terrible at all has led to very real consequences. JFK’s words about fearing nothing but “fear itself” ring especially true here. Most people in our lives care enough about us—or at least about propriety–to have civil conversations about sticky subjects. Whatever we’re afraid of is likely worse than the actuality.

Message Clarity

Unfortunately, knowing these pitfalls doesn’t stop others from misinterpreting what we say and do. But perhaps there are ways to send better messages into the world, and as a result, be less misunderstood. I like to try these three.

1.) Facial Recognition Software: Our expressions communicate more than we realize. Taking stock of what our face may be saying is a good check-in. 

2.) Pre-emptive Strike: When it’s been one of those days, warning those around us that we’re in a sensitive place goes far to prevent our growliness from being interpreted as something they did wrong.

3.) Text Subtext: As much as we “text talk”, if we don’t shine a light on the subtext (in some cases, a floodlight) we’re liable to be in a mess of confusion quickly, and often without even realizing we’ve been unclear.

We owe it to ourselves, and those around us, to believe in good intentions. To look past the surface & acknowledge that what we see may not be the full picture. Going forward, let’s choose to honor the missing pieces, Let’s use our decoder rings to understand and be heard. Let’s take a second bite.

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