Sunday, April 26, 2015


Do you ever feel misunderstood? Do you ever feel that-- try as you might-- people are misreading your feelings?

If you do, you are not alone.

Professor Heidi Grant Halvorson has written a book about it. Emily Esfahani Smith opens her discussion of the book with this anecdote:

In her new book No One Understands You and What To Do About It, Heidi Grant Halvorson tells readers a story about her friend, Tim. When Tim started a new job as a manager, one of his top priorities was communicating to his team that he valued each member’s input. So at team meetings, as each member spoke up about whatever project they were working on, Tim made sure he put on his “active-listening face” to signal that he cared about what each person was saying.

But after meeting with him a few times, Tim’s team got a very different message from the one he intended to send. “After a few weeks of meetings,” Halvorson explains, “one team member finally summoned up the courage to ask him the question that had been on everyone’s mind.” That question was: “Tim, are you angry with us right now?” When Tim explained that he wasn’t at all angry—that he was just putting on his “active-listening face”—his colleague gently explained that his active-listening face looked a lot like his angry face.

There’s something strange here.

Have you ever told yourself that you need to put on your “active-listening face” in order to convince people that you are listening to them? Clearly, there is something wrong with Tim’s way of showing people that he cares about what they are saying.

For my part I would like to know where Tim heard about the “active-listening face.”

In truth, he was putting on a mask. He believed that the mask accurately expressed his intentions, but he later discovered that there is more to listening than adopting a pose.

Surely, Halvorson is correct to say that there is a major gap between how we see ourselves and how others see us.

Smith explains:

This gap arises, as Halvorson explains in her book, from some quirks of human psychology. First, most people suffer from what psychologists call “the transparency illusion”—the belief that what they feel, desire, and intend is crystal clear to others, even though they have done very little to communicate clearly what is going on inside their minds.

People believe that everyone can read their emotions, so they do not bother to communicate them. One suspects that this is a cultural attitude.

Many people have overcome the idea that they should hide or mask their feelings. They have been told that it is bad to keep up appearances and to maintain a stiff upper lip.

This implies that we have reached a cultural apotheosis where we are perfectly transparent, to the point where we do not even need to express ourselves very clearly. Everyone knows what we feel without our expressing it.

It’s variation on the cultural attitude that tells us to express ourselves openly, honestly and shamelessly. Only, in the advanced lesson, we feel that we are perfectly transparent, that we do not hide anything and thus that everyone should know how we feel.

But, is that really Tim’s problem? Tim thought he knew what he was showing that he was listening because he had read in a book or heard from a consultant that the best way to show you are listening is to put on a specific kind of facial expression.

He did not think that he was transparent. He thought that he needed to put on the right mask in order to show that he was listening. One wonders how he got to his exalted executive position.

While Tim was sporting his “active-listening face” those who were talking to said “face” believed that he was scowling at them, that he was angry with them.

Why might this be so? One suspects that Tim was not reacting to what they say. He did not change his facial expression as a function of what he had heard. And he remained mute, seeming to give people the silent treatment.

If you want people to know that you are listening to them, you cannot adopt a mask that does not change regardless of what you are hearing. (Obviously, this shows why someone who is conversing with a friend whose face has been Botoxed will have an eerie feeling that his interlocutor is somehow not there.)

Also, if you want to show people that you have listened attentively to what they are saying, how about asking a question that reflects your understanding? Better yet, if you are an executive listening to your staff's opinions, how about adopting some of their ideas?

We show that we are listening by the way we respond to what is being said. If someone’s remarks merely elicit a blank stare, he will feel that he has been dismissed.

Of course, there are other kinds of misunderstanding. Smith offers some of Halvorson’s examples:

One person may think, for example, that by offering help to a colleague, she is coming across as generous. But her colleague may interpret her offer as a lack of faith in his abilities. Just as he misunderstands her, she misunderstands him: She offered him help because she thought he was overworked and stressed. He has, after all, been showing up early to work and going home late every day. But that’s not why he’s keeping strange hours; he just works best when the office is less crowded.

These kinds of misunderstandings lead to conflict and resentment not just at work, but at home too. How many fights between couples have started with one person misinterpreting what another says and does? He stares at his plate at dinner while she’s telling a story and she assumes he doesn’t care about what she’s saying, when really he is admiring the beautiful meal she made. She goes to bed early rather than watching their favorite television show together like they usually do, and he assumes she’s not interested in spending time with him, when really she’s just exhausted after a tough day at work.

Beyond our tendency to believe that those nearest and dearest to us can read our minds, we have a tendency to prejudge, to jump to conclusions, to believe that a specific gesture can only have one meaning.

In these examples, the problem lies in the assuming. The person seeing the gesture assumes that it can only mean one thing. He or she does not ask, does not inquire, does not engage a conversation.

Why do we make such assumptions? First, we believe that some faces can only mean one thing. Second, we believe that they are necessarily only relevant to the two people present.

It’s all about the here-and-now. One can only surmise where people might have gotten that idea.

And, oh yes, there’s our culturally-imposed narcissism. Having been taught that we are all the same, we read the emotions of another person as though we had been having the same emotion. We empathize, but do not ask the most elementary questions and do not even consider alternative interpretations.

A final point, one that Halvorson might have discussed in her book. Since I have not read the book I do not know whether she did.

In a multicultural world the possibilities for misunderstanding multiply. Since verbal and non-verbal gestures belong to localized social codes, when different people from different communities are following different social codes, they will have more misunderstandings.

Two people from two different cultures will need to offer more detailed explanations of what is on their minds.

People who have been brought up in the same community, who have the same social codes, who follow the same customs will be less likely to misunderstand each other.


Ares Olympus said...

re: In a multicultural world the possibilities for misunderstanding multiply. Since verbal and non-verbal gestures belong to localized social codes, when different people from different communities are following different social codes, they will have more misunderstandings. ... People who have been brought up in the same community, who have the same social codes, who follow the same customs will be less likely to misunderstand each other.

This is all certainly true, but it might also be true that people used to being a closed community will more likely make assumptions, while those who grow up in a diverse community are more likely to question their assumptions?

To me it shows we need to adapt our way of seeing based on our surroundings, so when your with a spouse or family or community of long relationships, you can say little and understand much, but when you're in the wider world, you need to be more vigilant in questioning if you're being understood, or if your understanding may be flawed.

I had one "autistic"(?) friend when I was younger and he never smiled, and I asked why. He said he read that animals bare their teeth to show aggression, and he didn't want to express aggression. That amazed me, but I should have asked him if he felt people who smiled were being aggressive. I still don't know if he really believed that, or maybe he just didn't like to smile.

Ares Olympus said...

Even within a common community, communication and misunderstandings are a tricky problem.

I think of two books, Please Understand Me, by David Keirsey, talking about how the 16-Myers-Briggs types (and 4 primary temperaments) see the world differently.

And also "You Just Don't Understand: Women and Men in Conversation" by Deborah Tannen, originally published in 1990.

Between gender and temperament there would seem to be vast opportunity for learning "how other see", while of course it is easier to put up strawman arguments for people who see things differently, and show why they're wrong, rather than considering the weaknesses and blindspots of your own ways of seeing.

Ares Olympus said...

Heidi Grant Halvorson has lots of videos online, like this one on getting and giving feedback, posted last October, but nothing on her new book. Heidi Grant Havlorson: Motivation & The Perils of Positive Thinking

David Foster said...

I expect that many if not most people, when they actively try to manage their facial expressions and their body language in general, will encounter the problem faced by Arthur Koestler's centipede: when he consciously thought about the order in which he should move his legs, he couldn't move at all.

David Foster said...

I once had a very nice girlfriend who (I thought) often looked bored when we were together. She strongly stated, when I asked her about it, that she wasn't bored at all....still, a bit disconcerting. Quite likely a case of facial-expression-misreading on my part.