In my town there is a drawbridge that is often under repair. When it is being worked on and the spans are in the upright position, is the bridge open or is it closed? Some people will say it’s open because they see the spans up and open for boats to go through. Others will say it’s closed because traffic cannot travel across. The conversation may go something like this: “Just a heads-up, the bridge is open.” “Oh, that’s good news. I hate going through that detour.” “No, I said the bridge is open.” “Yeah, I heard you. Thanks for letting me know.” “But you’ll have to go around…” It’s a simple example of how you can be in the same conversation, using different words, and meaning the same thing. Or you can mean entirely different things even when you’re using the same words. Like Abbott and Costello’s Who’s on First? routine, there’s nothing more frustrating than having a conversation with someone and feeling like you are really having two different conversations. Or not knowing what conversation you actually had.

It’s important to make sure that your words hold the same meaning as someone else’s – and to clarify that in conversation. My favorite example is “as soon as possible.” Pat: “Can you get that report to me as soon as possible?” Taylor: “Absolutely!” When Pat circles around later that day, Taylor hasn’t completed the report. Why? Because for Taylor, as soon as possible is after tomorrow’s presentation is finished. For Pat, as soon as possible is “drop everything and get it done.”

It is easy to get stuck in miscommunication, misunderstanding, and frustration with others. Have you ever witnessed a verbal conflict during a meeting and thought to yourself, “They’re both saying the same thing. Why are they arguing?!” Often it’s using different words to say the same thing or interpreting the same word differently. Here are a few tips to avoid this derailing your next conversation:

  • Listen – Go beyond the words and actively listen to what is being said. Is the meaning and essence of the point clear? If it’s not, what clarifying questions can you ask to make sure you’re on the same page working with the same understanding.
  • Define – Take a moment to clarify the meaning of a word or statement. If someone asks you to do something “as soon as possible,” make sure you ask what that means to them or explain what it means to you.
  • Agree – If you find yourself caught in a circular argument, take a step back and look for areas of agreement. You may discover that you are much more aligned in your thinking than you realize.
  • Ask – The fastest way to understanding the meaning of someone’s words is to ask. What do you mean by….? When you say X, I hear that as… Is that what you mean?
  • Open – We often get caught in these unnecessary verbal back-and-forths because we are too invested in our opinion or viewpoint. How can you be more open to what the other person has to say, so you can see the same path forward?

Words, meanings, and perceptions all entangle to create potential sources for misunderstanding. By digging deeper and looking for commonality, you may discover that you were both on the same page all along.

How have you been able to get on the same page with someone you were in conflict with?
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