Reality Check: Starting with Goodwill

Have you ever had a conversation that somehow went awry? You believe that you spoke clearly and reasonably, but the other person either couldn’t or wouldn’t understand. Frustrating, isn’t it?
When we speak, we want to be heard and understood. We might not expect perfect agreement (though that would be nice) but we’d at least like to know that we’ve communicated.
You’d think that communication would be easy. But even in the simplest conversations, there are opportunities for misunderstandings.
Take body language, for example. We send signals, whether we want to or not. If I’m talking to you with my arms crossed, I could just be trying to keep warm. However, you could interpret my posture as telling you that I am arrogant or judgmental. If that’s your perception, then no matter how supportive and encouraging my words are, what you’re hearing could be quite different from what I’m saying.
Then there’s tone of voice! For example, you ask, “Where have you been?” It’s only four words, and none of those words are difficult to understand. But depending on the tone of voice and which word you emphasize, this simple question could come across as curious, accusing, enthusiastic, even judgmental. So many possibilities! Thus, there are also many opportunities for misunderstanding, depending on the relationship.
And there’s the crux of the matter—how we perceive a conversation has a lot to do with how we perceive the relationship. When we have a positive, trusting, supportive relationship with someone, they can say pretty much anything and know that even if it comes out clumsily, we will interpret it in the most positive possible way. We may question it, or ask for clarification, but we don’t jump to being offended or angered by a comment that could be taken in different ways.
On the other hand, if we disdain, resent, or just plain dislike the person, no matter what they say, there’s a good chance that any comment will come across to us in a way that we can interpret as being negative.
In groups—such as workplace teams—where it is essential that people get along and work together, establishing “ground rules” can help. In reality therapy, “setting the environment” is an effective starting point for an interaction. While ground rules and environment-setting are somewhat different, in either case, we’re acknowledging that there’s a potential for misunderstanding and conflict. It’s helpful to recognize that possibility and take action to prevent it.
Why do friends manage to work through misunderstandings, even when one has said something that could be perceived as hurtful? Because they have a history of goodwill. They know that whatever is said isn’t meant to hurt.
However, when we interact with people we don’t know well, or whom we believe are “out to get us” or part of “that group,” it’s easy to get bent out of shape by a comment. We don’t have a backdrop of good feeling and goodwill to set the tone.
My suggestion is a simple one: If you want to get along and be understood, enter your conversations with goodwill toward the other person. Perhaps that’s a useful suggestion for entering a new year, as well!
What does goodwill look like to you? How do you recognize it in others?

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