One of the most frustrating things for me as a speaker and author is the inexactness of my own verbal skills and the uncertainty by which the things I say may be received by the hearer. It is one of the primary reasons I try to give grace when I hear someone say something stupid.
These thoughts were stirred recently as I watched a documentary on American History that appeared completely antithetical to nearly everything I have read and learned on the subject. While sometimes such challenges are good and help to correct wrong perceptions, I couldn’t help but wonder if the presentation was overly selective in its research.
A great challenges in today’s world is that people want to reduce everything down to a sound bite – One magic and memorable line that “says it all.” In reality, things are rarely that simple.
I bet I could go through almost any presentation I have ever given and pull out at least one sentence that – when removed from the overall context – is not even close to what I intended to convey. Sometimes it’s because my mouth moves faster than my brain and I say something I didn’t mean to say. Other times, I may be attempting to illustrate absurdity or challenge the listener’s attention. I have been known to misquote scripture to see if the audience picks up on it. They almost always correct me, but if that quote was lifted from a recording and played out of context, I could easily be portrayed as a heretic by those who don’t like me. (I know it’s surprising, but there are a few…)
It is impossible to convey the totality of my views in a forty-minute talk or a five-hundred-word blog. When I was in the corporate world, I sometimes trained eight hours a day for weeks at a time. Even then, it was impossible to tell everything.
When I was much younger, I wrote an article for a Ministry Newsletter. In the letter, I discussed the divinity of Jesus. A pastor, whom I was scheduled to serve, sent a message through a mutual contact that I was no longer welcomed at his church. He accused me of not believing in the Godhead. That was a complete misunderstanding of what I was attempting to convey, however, it was his perception.
When I attempted to call the minister to discuss the article and better explain my position, I could hear him in the background telling the person who answered that he would not talk to me. I was deeply pained by the misunderstanding and reached out to a mutual authority to help bring healing, but it was to no avail. I wonder how many people he misguided about my beliefs.
Yet another challenge with communication is personal perception. Our experiences cause us to interpret what others say in a unique way. People are often offended without the offender even understanding why. The different perceptions cause the parties to miss each other completely.
The great leadership expert Stephen Covey used to say, “Seek first to understand and then be understood.” A little grace and belief in others goes a long way. One thing is certain, if you are looking to be offended you will be. If you believe that others want to get along and do the right thing, a few questions and clarifications will often put things on the right track.
While I certainly take responsibility for choosing my thoughts and words carefully, I am the first to admit to my imperfections and human frailties. Sometimes the things I say are just plain stupid. (You can ask my wife.) I’m betting that if you think hard enough, you may find a few times that you have misspoken as well. The fact that I communicate for a living only increases my chances of stirring a hornet’s nest – even when unintended.
By the way, with a little bit of research, I quickly learned that the documentary I mentioned earlier was indeed skewed. Quotes and events were often devoid of historical context and sometimes even cherry-picked out of very different narratives than the ones presented. Modern perceptions, and a lack of understanding of culture during that period, only added to the misdirection. It is a personal comfort to know that even the great George Washington’s words are still offending people today. I should be so blessed. 😉