Navigating Misunderstandings and Conflict

They can damage relationships if not handled quickly and effectively, warns Stephen J. Aguilar, who offers some advice.

January 31, 2019
 
 
Istockphoto.com/Alashi

Misunderstandings in academe are common and often innocuous, yet they can create conflict. Perhaps someone misheard something you said, and now they are angry with you. Perhaps they heard your words correctly but comprehended them in a manner that did not align with your intent. Or perhaps they interpreted your silence in a way that was inconsistent with the message you wanted to send.

Regardless of their source, misunderstandings can damage relationships if they are not handled quickly. I would like to share a few ways that you can resolve misunderstandings in a manner that preserves the working relationships you have spent time and energy building.

But before I begin discussing strategies you can use to overcome misunderstandings, I urge you, above all, to be generous. When I was in graduate school for philosophy, I recall being told that in order to analyze a text well, you must first try to understand a text on its terms and do so in a way that assumes the best of the author’s intent. That requires generosity. It is easy to tear a text apart -- it is more difficult to look for the best in it.

That is true not only for analysis of text but also when interacting with your colleagues. It is easy to interpret someone’s disagreement with you as a personal attack or someone’s tone as aggressive. Doing so lacks generosity and does little to build on the relationship.

For example, when I was writing my dissertation, I had the tendency to invent new technical terms for the phenomena I was studying. I thought I was being clever. I wasn’t, and my dissertation chair called me out on it. My initial reaction was to assume that my brilliance was not being recognized. After thinking about it, however, I realized that even if my new terms were accurate/clever/etc., they weren’t doing what I wanted them to; rather than add clarity, they added confusion.

To this day, I still like the terms I came up with, but I also acknowledge that my adviser’s perspective was accurate and that sometimes it’s best to defer to someone with more experience. I could have just as easily dug my heels in and “won” the argument, but doing so would have added needless conversations to an already long process. That wouldn’t have furthered my work, and if I’m being honest, it would have been annoying to my adviser. While that in and of itself isn’t enough to damage a relationship, it certainly doesn’t help build one in a positive direction.

If You’re Misunderstood

First, you should ask if you are actually being misunderstood or if the other person’s read of the situation is warranted. Often we privilege our viewpoints and presume objectivity when, in fact, what we said can indeed be interpreted many ways.

Thus, you should assess the situation. What did you say? How did you say it? Does the fact that you said it, as opposed to someone else who isn’t like you, make a difference? If so, what difference does it make? Is there a power differential? If so, who has more of it? If you do, then why is that important to the given situation?

Once you’ve taken the time to assess the situation and have come to the conclusion that you’ve been misunderstood, your goal should be to pursue clarity, not just be correct. Understood in this way, misunderstandings are opportunities for the parties involved to learn from each other and discover how others interpret the world. Taking on the goal of clarity also provides a path forward.

Note that it may not be a good idea to begin with, “What I meant was [another attempt at what you meant].” If your words were ineffective the first time around, remixing them without feedback from the person hearing them may not actually make a difference.

Instead, begin by asking for feedback: “How do you interpret what I just said?” Or: “I don’t think I explained myself well -- what did you hear?” Those are decent places to start unpacking a misunderstanding. Either of them enables you to start a conversation with a cooperative spirit rather than one infused with a desire to somehow “win” the conversation by demonstrating that your words were right and their ears were wrong.

As a thought exercise, think about that person who just doesn’t get your work. Chances are their secret identity is someone whom I’ll call for these purposes Reviewer 2.

Reviewer 2 is perpetually wrong, unsophisticated in their thinking and simply doesn’t get the work you do -- either because they are incapable of it or because they like to antagonize you. In short, why bother taking their feedback seriously?

The short answer is because there is a very strong chance they are not as bad as all that. They may simply work in a different paradigm than you, or possess expertise that is orthogonal (but equally valid) to yours. They may also simply not understand the point you are trying to make because you weren’t as clear as you thought.

When interacting with Reviewer 2, take a breath and acknowledge that your language (be it spoken or written) is not infallible. This can be tricky, because we in academe are often guilty of loving our work -- and by extension our speech -- a little too much. That can lead us to protect both our work and our speech at all costs. Thus, if someone pushes back, you may become surprised, angered and combative. Feeling all of that is fine, but acting on it (or letting those feelings fester) can create more problems than it solves.

Rather than mire yourself in a futile attempt to protect imperfect work or speech, you should use any feedback to improve your clarity moving forward. Doing that with the help of the person who misunderstood you also helps build and/or improve your relationship with them.

If You Actually Make a Mistake

Everyone makes mistakes. It is within the realm of possibilities that the language you used to express yourself can actually be interpreted (correctly) as a slight, as insensitive or as an (unintentional) attack. If that is the case, own it. Acknowledge the correctness of a viewpoint that isn’t yours, learn from it and do both of those things publicly. Doing so does not lesson your original position -- it simply makes space for another equally valid one.

Often it is our inability to let go of our desire to be right that causes an innocuous misunderstanding to damage a relationship. If you’re not sure if you’ve actually made a mistake, simply ask for clarification -- something along the lines of, “I’m not sure I understand where you’re coming from -- can you help me?” That can go a long way to both building a relationship and resolving a misunderstanding before it becomes a major interpersonal conflict.

When It’s OK to Walk Away

Some misunderstandings and disagreements are unresolvable, and that’s OK. As I noted when I began, generosity goes a long way. If one person is generous and the other is incalcitrant, a resolution may not be possible. Attempting to force one in such situations may do more damage. In such situations, it’s perfectly reasonable to respectfully disengage from the conversation and try another day.

Bio

Stephen J. Aguilar is assistant professor of education at the University of Southern California Rossier School of Education. He leads the Learning Analytics and Psychology in Education Lab. You can follow him on Twitter @stephenaguilar.

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