The longer I live, the more I’m convinced that clear communication is a minor miracle.
In marriage, at the office, in everyday situations, it is so easy to miss each other—to totally misunderstand what another person says to you.
One of my favorite stories to illustrate this point is about a strange little man on a flight I took to Denver a few years ago. I spent most of the flight reading a book, but I also couldn’t help but listen to a conversation from the row behind me. A young woman was telling another passenger an amusing story about the week she had just spent with a man in Texas whom she had “met” online.
She said they had corresponded by e-mail for months and also talked on the phone frequently, and finally she decided to go visit him. “The minute I saw him, I knew it was a mistake,” she said. In his looks and in his personality, he was totally different from what she had imagined. “After a few minutes I began thinking, ‘I’ve got to spend an entire week with this guy?’”
After our flight landed in Denver and passengers began leaving their seats, the young woman headed quickly up the aisle, but the man with whom she had been talking lingered behind. “That sure was an interesting story she was telling,” I said to him. He looked surprised that I had spoken to him.
A few minutes later, while we waited for our luggage, I found myself standing next to the pair as they talked again. With them was another man who had happened to sit next to me during the flight. The young woman asked, “Who was that man who was talking about me?” The person who sat next to me on the flight said, “I don’t know … he was a strange little man!”
It didn’t take me long to realize that they were talking about me.
I was the “strange little man”!
It’s an interesting experience to hear complete strangers talking about you. And of course they didn’t even notice that this strange little man was now standing right next to them. I wanted to speak up and say, “Wait a minute! What makes you think I’m strange?”
Then I thought about their perspective. One secret of communication is to put yourself into the mind of the other person. In order to understand their perspective, I needed to first seek to understand their point of view and how it differs from my own.
For example, take the individual sitting next to me: We spoke only a couple words to each other, so he based his opinion on his observations. He saw me take my reading glasses out of a case and switch them with my regular glasses. He saw me open a small box full of pills. Perhaps he concluded I was some type of exacting fussbudget who lives a quiet, perfectly orderly life and wants everything done in a precise, exact way. Kind of like that obsessive-compulsive detective in the television series, “Monk.”
The man in the row behind me probably was shocked to learn I had listened to their conversation; people on planes often don’t realize how easily others can hear them. So perhaps to him I was a nosy, slightly peculiar passenger who needed to mind his own business. Perhaps he was right!
My point is that when I forced myself to consider their viewpoint, I began to understand why they might regard me as a “strange little man.”
It made me wonder how often my wife, my children, and my friends don’t understand me because I haven’t taken the time to see things from their perspective.
It probably happens more often than I realize.