30 April 2008 by The Relaxed Therapist
You can always be misunderstood
There are two aims in any conversation: unambiguous expression of your own position and complete comprehension of the other person’s views. We should always remember that neither of these aims is a realistic goal.
A client told me of an ante-natal appointment at which her midwife said “So, your first child was deformed and your second child was killed: let’s hope it’s third time lucky, shall we?”
While it is difficult to imagine anyone not being offended by such insensitivity, it is equally hard to believe that the midwife was being intentionally cruel. If she thought at all about her comment, she may have imagined she was being warm & humorous: rapport-building.
While serving as a Member of the Finnish Parliament, communications researcher Osmo Wiio proposed his “laws of comunication”, including:
- If communication can fail, it will
- If communication cannot fail, it still most usually fails
- If communication seems to succeed in the intended way, there’s a misunderstanding
- If you are content with your message, communication certainly fails!
Clients are often mystified by someone’s negative reaction to what seemed, to them, to be a reasonable statement or request. In discussing such situations, we usually conclude that it is possible to misunderstand even the most clearly worded request and to be offended by even the most innocuous statement: what the speaker says may have little to do with what the listener hears.
Clients who are anxious or depressed may be less able to attend to either expression or comprehension with the same care & attention as their therapist. Therapists’ comments & questions, however clearly articulated, may still be misinterpreted because the client is not paying full attention or has information of which the therapist is unaware (but which the client may think the therapist knows).
Misunderstandings & unfortunate comments can be worked through given time and effort, but neither of these will be forthcoming from a therapist who thinks that their own communication is unambiguous.