The emotional meaning of a word is in the person NOT the word.

Have you ever said (or did) something only to have the person with whom you are interacting, react in a way that totally surprised you?

Of course you have.  We all have. But you may not know why this occurred.

There is a quote from the NLP (Neuro Linguistic Programming) literature that says: “The meaning of a communication is the response that you get regardless of what you intended to (say/do)”.

Another way to put this is that the emotional meaning of a word is in the person not in the word.

Let me explain.

While it seems to be a simple process, and sometimes it is, communicating with another person can be very complicated.

Each interaction involves you (the sender) and the other person (the receiver).  Your job as the sender is to pick the best words to convey what you want to say.  This is called  encoding. The job of the receiver is to listen to you and get the meaning you are trying to send. This is called decoding.

Several different processes can complicated the encoding and decoding of words. These processes serve as obstacles to successful communication.

  1. Do each of you have a sufficient vocabulary to pick the best word?
  2. Are both of you engaged in the communication process such that you are focused on each other, avoiding external distractions, and concentrating on the message?
  3. Are both of you paying attention to insure that your own emotional issues do not interfere with the message being communicated?

While there are more issues that can interrupt communication, these three give you an idea of the potential obstacles that exist to successful communication.

Emotions become relevant in obstacle #2 and #3.

In every case, you respond to another person based on how you interpret what they are saying (or doing).  Your interpretation of another person’s words depends on your emotional state.  This is obstacle #3. If you are “primed” for anger because you are thinking of a previous incident in which you were mistreated or you have a history of incidents with the other person, the filter through which you will perceive what they say will be one of self-defense and you will more easily get angry.

If you have had a good day or you have a positive or neutral history with the other person, you are more likely to give them the “benefit of the doubt” and possibly reserve judgment on any questionable communication.

A similar process goes on for other feelings.

The same is true for another person whose reaction to you suggests that they have misperceived what you said because their reaction does not match the words and emotional tone you were trying to communicate.

Let me give you an example:

You go into your office to start your workday and you say to one of your co-workers: “How are you?”

A. If your co-worker says “Great, how are you?” then you have had a successful interaction.  In most cases when we say “How are you?”, the meaning of the words are simply “I acknowledge you.”  Saying “Hello”, “How is it going?” or “Good morning.” all mean the same in this context.

B. But, suppose, your co-worker says: “Wow, I am really glad you asked. I had an argument with my spouse, the dog had an accident on the rug, and I had trouble starting my car this morning.  Oh, and did I mention…..”  In this case, he (or she) interpreted your question as meaning ” I really want to know about your life.  Give me all the details.”

C. Or, if your co-worker says: “Why do you ask?” or “What’s it to you?”  In this case, your co-worker has interpreted your question as unnecessary prying or intrusive.

With examples B and C above, it is not what you said but how the other person misinterpreted what you said that led to the unexpected response. The other person put their own spin or interpretation on your words and reacted “as if” you meant to say what he “heard” you say.

Or, to put in another way, the meaning of a word  is in the person or the meaning of a communication (to another person) is the response you get (from that person).

Using the Emotions as Tools Model, you can infer how a person perceives you based on the emotional tone of their response to you and the message of that emotion.

If they respond in an angry manner, then you know that they have perceived you, or what you said (did) as a threat.  You know this because the message of anger is that a threat has been perceived that the angry person believes they can eliminate.

If the response you get suggests that the other person is anxious or cautious with you, then you can assume that they perceive you as a possible threat that might hurt them. This is the message of anxiety.

With this knowledge, you can ask them for clarification.

You can say: “I am surprised by how you responded to what I said.  What did you hear me say?”

Be sure not to label what they said, take offense, or blame. Your initial goal is clarify what is going on with them.  It is possible that you did not use the right words or that you had an emotional overtone in your voice. Or, maybe, the misinterpretation is totally on them.  It doesn’t matter at this point as, for now, your goal is clarification.

There is always time later on to seek additional clarification, if needed, apologize for any misunderstanding or respond to their emotion, if appropriate, or rephrase what you said.

I welcome your comments.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.