What To Do When You’re Blindsided By Misinterpretation

Here’s a sentence you don’t hear very often: Turns out Nixon was right! Not about all things, of course — but when he said “I know you think you know exactly what you thought I meant to say. But what you fail to realize is what you heard was not what I meant at all.”  I think he nailed a core human truth to the wall.

Recently, I was working with a client who facilitated a difficult policy shift between management and labor, and when all was said and done, both sides seemed like they had a clear understanding of the change. He felt he exhibited great leadership and facilitated a healthy dialogue and debate, and the outcome was effective. And it was — up and until the point it wasn’t.  Soon after this powerful demonstration of communication and collaboration, he learned that the two sides had significantly different interpretations of the conclusion. What his team proceeded to implement was not what management had intended — and now everyone was off track and, frankly, frustrated.

What do they do now?

What do we do when such a clear miscommunication throws off our team dynamics and objectives?

First things first: ask the important question.

“When was the last time you were all really, truly, on the same page about the topic?” I asked my client. He had to think about it for a moment, but soon he nodded.

“I can name the exact moment,” he said confidently.

“Excellent!” I said. “So now you know where to go back to!” 

If you can name the moment of divergence, the last time you were all on the same page — and do so confidently — you can reengage in the conversation from that moment forward and reset the clock. Often at times like these, the problem is in defining your terms. A single word can have multiple meanings, and you can never be sure the meaning everyone is latching onto unless you ask. Nixon was right: what gets said, what is meant, and what gets heard, are often quite different things. Why? Because as Anias Nin pointed out, “We don’t see the world as it is, we see the world as we are.”  There is no singular interpretation of anything, We all have different interpretations of words and events based on our biases and perceptions. And that’s OK.

Remember this — and this is a crucial point — if your team, or your boss, doesn’t seem to be behaving the way you thought they would, don’t assume malicious intent. Talk about it; the odds are, they didn’t hear what you thought they heard. Go back to the point of divergence, and work together to define terms and to clarify everyone’s interpretation, understanding, and intention.

Assume the best of your team, and then work to be the best for your team.