Counselling in Chichester &
West Sussex

What I really meant to say was……….

I was recently reminded that communication with others can sometimes be a complex affair.  I had been asked for a copy of a note I had made some years ago.  The request was perfectly appropriate and I responded by providing a copy of my handwritten note.  I was rather surprised to subsequently receive a reply to say that this submission was unhelpful as my writing was illegible.

Having looked again at my original handwritten note my surprise turned to a sense of mild irritation. (This assumes of course that therapists are permitted to be irritated!)  My indignant view was that my handwriting although untidy and sometimes difficult to read was certainly legible if only the respondent took time to work through it.

This reaction reminds me of issues around communication which often arise in the therapy room. These  are equally important whether for individuals or couple counselling; or CBT work or some other form of therapy. Our usual view as the originator of a comment or a note is that we are of course being perfectly clear in our communication. We can then sometimes be very surprised by the unexpected reaction from the other party.

I often illustrate that with a very simple example. We talk with a friend who since we last met has now taken on a very different hairstyle.  You may say to your friend as an almost instant reaction, ‘what have you done to your hair?’ If the comment is made in a neutral tone some friends may immediately interpret this as a favourable comment. As you always get on well together and have much in common your friend decides that this just is your way of saying that you have noticed and approve of the new style.

Others who are perhaps used to you arguing with them albeit about trivia may immediately interpret that very same observation as a criticism. They may decide that your comments or question was your way of saying that you disliked the change and found it inappropriate.

There would also be that group who were unsure as to what you intended by the comment. Some of those might then just ignore your comment whilst others would inwardly fret about the meaning behind that comment of ‘what have you done to your hair’. I very much hope that there would also be some who if rather puzzled by your question were able to just ask you for some greater clarity!

This example reinforces that adage that what is important is not what we say or write but how we are heard (or read!). If we want to be understood by our others, by our friends, partners and colleagues we may want to consider how our message is likely to be received by the other side.

When those roles are reversed and we find ourselves as the recipient of the comment we should look for clarification if there is any doubt in our minds around the intended meaning and to do that before we rush to judgement.

What we hear and understand from others is likely to owe as much to our personal narrative and expectation about how others usually behave towards us than to the actual words used.  What will be important is not just what others say but how we interpret those words and the meaning we attribute to them.

And the lesson for me with regard to the criticism of that handwritten note?  Well maybe there is a message there about writing more neatly in the future.   Ah but I am quick to respond, this is my handwriting, this is my style.  I cannot possibly change that after all these years.

Really?!  And this coming from the counsellor and therapist who always tries to encourage client to think about how to readily accept and embrace change! Perhaps I really should undertake to try some neater handwriting writing!