Have you ever found yourself arguing with someone over something you thought was completely obvious? I have. Maybe there was confusion because we weren’t actually talking about the same thing.
I was working with Gary on a joint presentation for a large audience. Gary and I had always gotten along great, and I was excited to tackle this project together. We agreed on the direction we wanted the presentation to go in and decided to divide the work between us to be more efficient.
When we met two weeks before the presentation to go over the final logistics, though, we found ourselves arguing over the story I wanted to read aloud for our ending. Gary told me he thought it was pretty bleak and didn’t fit the tone we wanted. I couldn’t understand what he was talking about. The story I’d emailed to him weeks ago clearly had a message of hope and would leave our audience uplifted.
We went back and forth about this story, with our voices and our blood pressures rising. I was frustrated and confused – how could he possibly have this opinion about this story?
That’s when it hit me – we just might be talking about two different stories.
The story I had emailed to Gary was an excerpt of a much longer published piece. It turned out that Gary hadn’t read the text I’d emailed to him weeks ago – it had gotten lost or buried in his inbox. Instead, when I sent him an outline of the presentation with the story’s title and author, he’d googled it and read the entire piece online. The original story does end on a different, less hopeful note.
We literally weren’t on the same page.
We thought we were talking about the same thing – same title, same author – but in reality, we were each referring to our own version of the story.
This same kind of confusion can happen when we’re talking with someone and we think we’re on the same (metaphorical) page, but haven’t checked in with each other to confirm that we’re really talking about the same thing.
Here are a couple of strategies that can help prevent – or clear up – misunderstandings like the one Gary and I had.
Ask questions. Instead of assuming that Gary had read the text I’d emailed to him, I could have asked, “So, what did you think of that story I sent you?” or “Did you get a chance to read the story I emailed you?” Beginning the conversation with some questions to establish a common baseline, vocabulary, or starting point can nip conversational confusion in the bud.
Paraphrase. Sometimes, we think we understand what the other person has just told us, but when the stakes are high or emotions are involved, it’s to everyone’s benefit to make sure we really do understand. Paraphrasing what he said can help clear up any possible misunderstandings. “So what it sounds to me like you’re saying is…” or “What I’m hearing you say is…” are two ways you can begin to paraphrase back to him what you think you just heard.
Check in for accuracy. Follow up your paraphrase with “Did I get that right?” or “Am I on the right track?” Asking this kind of question gives him the opportunity to either confirm you’re right or clarify his position.
Stay open. Digging deeper and working for understanding are much harder when tempers are flaring. Take deep breaths, focus on the positive outcome you know you both want, and keep listening. Shutting down, getting angry, or walking away in frustration will likely only make the misunderstanding worse.
So what happened with Gary? As we argued, I began to wonder if he was referring to the much longer version of the story. He was mentioning details that weren’t in the excerpt I’d sent him. I finally asked, “Did you read the version I emailed you?” When he said he didn’t remember ever getting an email, it was like a cloud immediately lifted. Now I understood what his concerns were, and I could reassure him by showing him the shorter version I wanted to use in the presentation. After getting on the same (literal) page, Gary agreed with me, and ultimately, our presentation was a smash hit, story included.