Understanding Misunderstandings

Misunderstandings are all around us, and no one enjoys being misunderstood. 

They take place at the national level – daily. In the United States, a large minority of the country believes the presidential election was stolen from them, and another large minority can’t believe anyone would think that. 

And, misunderstandings are happening more and more with so many of our interactions being virtual right now. I was on a call with Eric Smith at High Alpha venture studio this past week, who shared that his biggest regret of COVID is that he can’t see his colleagues’ microexpressions. He can’t see their legs move in a way that shows they’re anxious about something he said. He can’t see someone’s body language after a meeting to understand if they’re upset. So, he may think someone is completely fine when in reality they are incredibly anxious. In a virtual environment, people have to communicate issues verbally, which is difficult to do.

Just this past week, Dani (GAN’s rockstar COO) vetoed a growth idea I had that had expense-related implications. This interaction evolved into a multi-hour ping pong discussion over text. As we were texting, I thought she didn’t understand how important my idea was to our growth and wasn’t taking a holistic view of the company. But, as soon as I picked up the phone and actually asked Dani what her intentions were, I realized that Dani had not only thought through the same considerations I had, but she had come up with a handful more, leading her to a place where she made the right call, all things considered.

Unfortunately, my original misunderstanding of Dani caused me to waste unnecessary emotional energy for the few hours we were talking via text. In this case, the misunderstanding didn’t cause much unnecessary hardship, but misunderstandings can have drastic consequences, like loss of relationships and even civil wars. Yet, understanding what misunderstandings are and why they happen can help us avoid these unfortunate circumstances in the future. 

The Science Behind What’s Going On

Thanks to Anna on the GAN team, I was introduced to Heidi Grant Halvorson’s research from her book No One Understands You and What to Do About It. According to Halvorson, most people think that their feelings and intentions are obvious even when these things haven’t been communicated at all. This belief is a psychological concept called the “transparency illusion.” It plays out all the time. For example, maybe you’re deep in thought considering your plans for the rest of the day and you’re a little more quiet than usual. You’re in a perfectly good mood, and assume those around you can tell.  Yet, your roommate or partner is walking on eggshells around you because they misunderstand that your silence is because you are upset with them about something. 

Anna shared her own experience with being misunderstood — as a kid in school, teachers would often ask her if she was confused (their initial assumption) because of her facial expression, when really she was just deeply concentrated on the subject matter being taught. The “are you ok?” question from the teacher was always frustrating because Anna assumed the teachers would be proud of her concentration and attentiveness in class.    

“Chances are,” Halvorson writes, “how you look when you are slightly frustrated isn’t all that different from how you look when you are a little concerned, confused, disappointed, or nervous.”

In the examples above, the perceivers (the roommate/partner and Anna’s teacher) are grappling with two powerful forces that all of us encounter when dealing with perceptions. Research by Daniel Kahneman, author of Thinking Fast and Slow, reveals that humans interpret information in two ways: System 1 and System 2 thinking.

In System 1 thinking, our minds are on “auto-pilot,” engaging in “effortless” thinking — for example, knowing automatically that 2+2=4. The brain is using shortcuts or heuristics to come to conclusions about another person.” An interaction happens, and you let your brain react automatically. 

Looking back at the Dani situation above, she wrote to me, and I let my brain make assumptions, leading me to tell myself a story that she was only focused on the financial part of the decision (when really this was only my initial impression). I didn’t even consider that she may have thought anything other than my initial understanding, which was classic System 1 thinking, thereby leading me to misunderstand Dani.

And we see this play out in social science research that looked at the perception teachers have of their students who perform well on the first half versus second half of a test. This study showed that our first impressions have significant power over our perceptions of people and situations. The teachers in the study formed a more positive opinion of the students who performed better on the first half of the test (and poorly on the second half) than those who performed poorly on the first half and well on the second half. 

But in System 2 thinking, our minds are more deliberative and able to manage complex thoughts like when we are solving a difficult math problem. When System 2 kicks in, we are able to take a more cognitive and curious approach to the issue at hand. We ask ourselves, “what are all of the factors at play?” For example, a teacher using System 2 thinking would look at the students’ test performance holistically. He or she would consider the full scope of performance and interactions he or she has had with the student before making a judgement on the student’s capabilities. 

So, why are misunderstandings so common? Because our minds default to System 1 thinking. Our brains have this tendency towards being, in Halverson’s words, “a cognitive miser” or “lazy thinker” because it requires less energy. Fast, effortless, “lazy” shortcuts lead to misunderstandings. System 2 thinking, on the other hand, requires significant energy and effort. Fortunately, with some effort, System 2 has the amazing ability to overthrow System 1 and keep us from acting on our initial instincts and perceptions by evaluating a situation from multiple angles. Systems 2 thinking helps us avoid misunderstandings.

So, how do we consistently move into more System 2 thinking?

How To Manage Misunderstandings

Here are some of the best ways I’ve found to avoid misunderstandings and cope with them when they happen. 

1) Reminding myself that I can only control myself. 

This has been my saving grace over and over again. I can’t control how people vote. How a colleague talks to me. What my kids do every minute of their lives. The only thing I can control is how I react to the various stimuli that are coming my way.

For instance, when someone on my team misunderstands my intentions, all I want to do at that moment is get defensive and fight back. But, the more effective thing to do is let tensions die and respond more productively. So, when stimuli happen that cause me to start getting emotional, I realize that I can only control myself, which involves keeping myself calm and moving my mind to System 2 as quickly as possible.

2) There are a number of  ways I’ve found to move from System 1 to System 2. 

  • Be curious. Immediately start asking what the other things that could be going on besides the first thought that came to mind are. Ask what the other things that could be going on are. For instance, in the last election in the United States, a few friends couldn’t believe how many people voted for Trump and, therefore, how “racist those people are”. But, I know many incredibly thoughtful Trump supporters who aren’t There may be other reasons people voted for Trump, and it takes a lot of questioning, time, patience and humility to understand why those people voted for a particular candidate, rather than just assuming your first (System 1) thought.
  • Be empathic. Ask what could the other person be feeling or thinking that led them to act this way.
  • Have a relationship with the people you engage with. One of the best things about having colleagues that you love and trust is that you have the relationship to ask what the person meant when negative stimuli happens. It’s not awkward to ask the person, “what did they mean by that thing they said or that look they gave?”
  • Assume the best intent. This is another one of Dani’s gifts to GAN – the idea that we always assume the other person’s best intentions. If I get a weird email, assume that they wrote it fast. If someone is short with me, assume that they may be hungry and in need of a snack. You get the point. Don’t assume that every negative stimulus is an indicator of a bigger issue.
  • Ask. If you don’t know why a person did or said that thing, ask. For instance, I’ve asked many people why they voted the way they did in the last election. It’s been so helpful to understand where people are mentally, allowing me to have more empathy for what they’re dealing with and the solutions they’re seeking to solve their personal problems. And, while I may deeply disagree with the solutions they’re seeking (i.e., voting for a particular candidate to solve all their issues), at least I now know more about why they’re seeking those particular solutions.
  • And when you ask the other person these questions, use “the story I’m telling myself.” This is a gift from Brene Brown, and I’ve found this super helpful when engaging others. If you’re curious and looking to figure out if you’re actually correct or incorrect in your understanding, go to the other person saying, “The story I’m telling myself is this about what just happened.” You may say, “You gave me a funny response, and the story I’m telling myself is that you’re frustrated with me.” Then, you get to let the person tell you exactly what they meant.

Here’s to more understanding in 2021.