When Words Are Misconstrued

By Alana HuxtableNovember 24, 2021

Written communication is seriously tricky. Tone of voice, intention and meaning can easily be misinterpreted and it happens all the time. Take a look around on social media, email and just about any platform that involves written words!

This very situation happened in my case, just the other day in fact, and it got me thinking and inspired me to write this blog.

You see, a very high profile business person who had just connected with me, felt insulted by something I'd said after I responded to him in the written form privately. He'd been following my personal profile for some time, so was a fan of me and my content; but because he doesn’t know me very well on a personal level, he interpreted my words in a private message, differently to what I intended… and was personally hurt by something I said.

He communicated to me that he felt insulted. While first up I thought he was joking, in hindsight, now I can see how he might have felt that way ... not that I was ever intending it. It's only through the benefit of hindsight and witnessing his reaction, that I have been reminded that written communication can be so easily misunderstood.

At the time though, I was surprised. So I re-read my message, given I could sense the hurt in his words. Even more surprising, was that he even cared or took it to heart so easily… especially given he is so well known and needs to communicate and deal with people every day on other important matters. I wouldn't expect him to be emotionally affected by something that I had said… which in one way is flattering, but on the other, it's disappointing, given that I clearly hurt or upset him, and for that, I am sorry.

I know it's killing you to know who it is, but I won't reveal that for a whole bunch of reasons, but mostly moral ones.

Let’s just say that all people can and will get offended at what otherwise might seem like something totally inconsequential. Sure it can vary depending on the person, but such misunderstandings and disproportionately emotional reactions happen more often than you think. Especially when it involves written communication!

Sometimes, people can get hurt or otherwise offended, by something that was said online simply because the intent and tone of voice wasn't understood correctly. Whether you like it or not, when the intent and tone of voice aren't understood correctly by the receiver, it's because of how you've communicated it that the misunderstanding even exists in the first place, which means there's room for improvement there.

So, me being me, I decided to see what I could do better with my communication with people in future, especially given I now find myself associating with some of the most famous and high achieving people in the world. It's a whole new level and there are all sorts of things I have to consider and navigate.

So let’s take a look at what I learned, shall we? This is what you do if you don’t want people to misunderstand your written words, and you seek to lessen the possibility of upsetting or hurting the person on the receiving end of the email or message.

Tip 1. Limit Humour

Okay, so this is one of the ways I stuffed up. Unless you know someone extremely well, you should avoid your use of humour in written communication – especially when it’s early into the relationship or as a first point of communication. Humour tends to be one of those things that is hit or miss, and when you factor in time zones, perspectives, past life experiences, and the fact that some someone else's sense of humour can vary to yours, it is easy to see how something pretty simple can go horribly wrong. Humour doesn't translate terribly well in the written environment unless they truly know who you are. If they don't, then they might view your words as a personal insult rather than as humour.

Despite this person being so high profile, I didn’t have any preconceived ideas about who he is as a person, or felt that I knew him ... so don't get me wrong. No… I just saw him as another person. My down-to-earth, genuine nature can sometimes be misunderstood. So when you’re talking to someone new, you’re best to avoid humour, at least until they get to know you better!

Tip 2. Understand Ego

We all have elements of our ego that get involved in any form of communication, and when someone feels insulted, chances are that there has been what is known as a ‘Crossed Transaction’.

This means that Person 1 says something from one ego state and receives a different response than he or she is expecting, due to the other person thinking and feeling from a different ego state. In this way, things can easily get misunderstood and someone can get emotionally affected.

In this scenario, Person 1 might be conversational or innocently observant, and speak from that adult ego state, hoping they’ll receive an answer from Person 2’s adult ego state. However Person 2 is triggered for reasons you might not know or understand. Their child ego state is activated (I’m not trying to be insulting here, as we all have one, even me), and they feel criticised, hurt or patronised.

Result: usually an awkward or abrupt end to that conversation, with one person feeling hurt, annoyed or disappointed, and the other feeling confused and bewildered.

Knowing all this then, it’s usually a good idea, when communicating via a written medium, to make sure to read and re-read before finalizing the copy/email/text. Once you are done with the proofreading, see if there are other interpretations to the message and whether you would like to eliminate them or not.

Tip 3. Make the Complicated Simple. Make the Simple Simpler.

Always try to simplify your message. Bring down your sentences to the simplest degree to avoid ambiguity in your messages. If the words and sentences are simple the probability of understanding the message is higher. There is no point in highfalutin sentences, if the receiver doesn’t decode the message correctly.

Tip 4. Start as a Good Listener.

Listening is another important aspect of being a good communicator. You cannot deliver a perfect message until you are a good listener. Without listening you will not know what you are being asked for.

Tip 5. No Jargons. They Hinder Understanding.

Make sure you do not include vocabulary that can be difficult for the receiver to understand. Using jargons and technical terms can create misunderstanding if the decoder is not familiar with those words.

Tip 6. Make it Concise and Precise.

Brevity is the soul of wit as well as communication. Whether you are delivering a speech or writing an application or forwarding a formal text, always keep it to-the-point. Avoid unnecessary words, phrases and sentences.

Writing should be assertive and relatively simple. If you follow the principles outlined above, you should be able to communicate clearly with your peers and get your point across, without misunderstanding, which is the purpose of your writing.

I hope my mistakes and never-ceasing hunger to improve, help you in your own life.

It's always good to look at what you can do better... even when you think or feel that another person, may be over-reacting or sensitive.

Even when that's the case, chances are that you've played some part in it, one way or another, even unintentionally or accidentally. And there can be learnings to take and improvements you can make for next time.

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