This is one piece of insight that can be a bit tough to swallow for some of us at first, especially those of us who over-identify with our thoughts (a topic for another time) and/or overestimate the objectivity of our perspective. How many times have you been sure you judged a situation correctly and later hear more of the story from someone else’s perspective and realize you’d actually gotten at least part of it wrong? Maybe, instead, I should ask how many times that’s happened this week. Misinterpretation is normal and it’s going to happen. A healthy perspective, though, on how this process works can help us avoid a lot of mistakes in relationships.
First, let’s start with the science. In his book Trauma and Memory, Dr. Peter Levine (2015) describes the subjective nature of the way our brain works by pointing out:
”We must live with the uncomfortable acceptance that memory is simply not something concrete, definitive, and reproducible, like a video recording that can be retrieved at will. It is instead more ephemeral, ever-shifting in shape and meaning. Memory is not a discrete phenomenon, a fixed construction, cemented permanently onto a stone foundation. Rather, it is more like a fragile house of cards, perched precariously upon the shifting sands of time, at the mercy of interpretation and confabulation” (p. 2)
Most of us who sat through Psych 101 heard the example of how two people that witness a car accident will swear by completely different details about what happened, even down to the color of the cars involved. We know this, especially when we’re pointing it out in someone else, but it’s definitely harder to apply to ourselves and our judgment. The reality is that we often act as if our perspectives are factual and objective, despite even scientific evidence to the contrary. This works great for attorneys, not so much for loving relationships.
Many of us have heard the recommendation to use “I” statements during difficult conversations (for example, saying "I felt hurt by..." instead of "You made me mad by..."). This is a great strategy. Another great way to help de-escalate a sensitive conversation is to go a step further and instead of presenting what we heard or interpreted as fact (which, as I’ve pointed out here isn’t true anyway) present it as what it is- an interpretation. One of my favorite recommendations for dealing with conflict in couples counseling is to ask each individual to start each interpretation statement (many of them are in an argument) with “What I make up in my head about what you just said/what just happened is…” It’s always a little clumsy at first but this works. In my best moments, I either say this in my head or out loud when I find myself in a situation where I’m interpreting said situation and want to be careful not to present it as if I believe it’s fact. Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t my way of saying that I don’t think my opinion matters. It’s simply an acknowledgment that the way my brain works is to take in what’s happening or being said, interpret it through my many lenses of personal experience, bias, etc (for better or for worse), and then come up with a finished product that can’t possibly be anything but subjective. It is what it is. I’m a human being; I’m just built that way. It’s not a flaw that I need to get better at avoiding. It’s a fact.
So what’s the solution? The solution is to have a healthy relationship with my thoughts and opinions and to never stop asking questions. What do I mean by a healthy relationship with my thoughts and opinions? I mean knowing and believing what I said at the end of the last paragraph. I need to be aware and at peace with the fact that I’m not meant to/can’t possibly be objective and I’m a better partner/friend/daughter/coworker for acknowledging that. Do you know anyone who always presents their thoughts/opinions/perspectives as factual and won’t listen to anyone else’s input? We all hate that, right? Then we should probably stop doing it ourselves. Solutions don’t get much simpler than that. The way we say things really matters. Language not only communicates how we think and feel; the reverse is also true. The words we choose to use can also change how we think and feel. That’s why practicing things like beginning our sentences with “What I’m making up in my head about that is…” matters.
The second recommendation I want to make is to never stop asking questions. That’s when communication dies. It’s when we stop coming up with questions and looking for answers. Don’t take my word for it. Next time you hear two people escalating into a verbal conflict, test my theory. It goes wrong at some point because they stop listening to each other and stop trying to understand what the other person is saying. At that point, we are no longer communicating and we might as well cut our losses and come back to that topic later. When we are no longer curious about and truly trying to understand the other person’s thoughts and feelings on whatever we’re talking about, we’re no longer having a conversation. We’re only talking at each other. We’re also no longer connecting. At that point, I recommend you take a break until you are calm enough and grounded enough to find that empathy, desire for connection, and curiosity that are at the foundation of good relationships.
As I was researching some of my favorite books for thoughts on this topic, I found far too many to fit into one article. So I thought I would leave you with a few of my favorites here at the end. I’m a big fan of writing quotes that I find really impactful on an index card in a spot where I can occasionally read them back over. Remember, words matter and we soak up language like sponges. It never hurts to be intentional about soaking up the good stuff.
From Dr. Brené Brown’s Rising Strong:
“The rumble begins with turning up our curiosity level and becoming aware of the story we’re telling ourselves about our hurt, anger, frustration, or pain. The minute we find ourselves face down on the arena floor, our minds go to work trying to make sense of what’s happening. This story is driven by emotion and the immediate need to self-protect, which means it’s most likely not accurate, well thought out, or even civil. In fact, if your very first story is any of these things, either you’re an outlier or you’re not being fully honest.” (p. 78)
“When unconscious storytelling becomes our default, we often keep tripping over the same issue, staying down when we fall, and having different versions of the same problem in our relationships- we’ve got the story on repeat. Burton explains that our brains like predictable storytelling. He writes, ‘In effect, well-oiled patterns of observation encourage our brains to compose a story that we expect to hear.’”
From The Four Agreements by Don Miguel Ruiz:
“Your opinion is nothing but your point of view. It is not necessarily true. Your opinion comes from your beliefs, your own ego, and your own dream.” (p. 47)
“We have the tendency to make assumptions about everything. The problem with making assumptions is that we believe they are the truth. We could swear they are real. We make assumptions about what others are doing or thinking- we take it personally- then we blame them and react by sending emotional poison with our word. That is why whenever we make assumptions, we’re asking for problems. We make an assumption, we misunderstand, we take it personally, and we end up creating a whole big drama for nothing.” (p. 69)
“We make all sorts of assumptions because we don’t have the courage to ask questions.” (p. 74)
Brown, B. (2017). Braving the Wilderness: The Quest for True Belonging and the Courage to Stand Alone. New York: Random House.
Levine, Peter A. Trauma and Memory: Brain and Body in a Search for the Living Past: A Practical Guide for Understanding and Working with Traumatic Memory. North Atlantic Books, 2015.
Ruiz, D. (2008). The Four Agreements. Thorndike, Me.: Center Point Pub.