“But that’s not what I meant!” – The Elusive Gap between Perceptions and Intentions in Communication

Have you ever been in a conversation that went something like this?

Other Person: I can’t believe you said that! It really hurt my feelings.

You: I am so sorry. I didn’t mean to hurt you.

Other Person (agitated): How could you not know that would hurt me?

You (perplexed): I really didn’t mean to hurt you. I was just trying to say what I thought about the situation.

Other Person (scoffs): But you should’ve known how I would take it. I mean, please – it was obvious.

You (now desperate to be understood): Really, I only intended my comment to be helpful. I honestly didn’t mean to hurt you.

 

This could go on, but I think you get the idea. I imagine many of us have had variations of the aforementioned conversation with a spouse, friend, colleague, or acquaintance. This vein of conversation illustrates a disparity between the intention behind what someone said and the perception of what was said.

Perception is the process by which we understand the world around us.[1] This process is influenced by our past experiences, our cultural upbringing, personality, social context, and even our mood at the time when something is being perceived. For example, you may be better at coping with bad news when you are in a physically and emotionally healthy place (“Oh well, I’m sure everything happens for a reason”) than when you are already discouraged or feeling unwell (“Why does everything go wrong for me?!”). Cultural influence on perception is aptly illustrated in our perception of polite and rude behaviour. Bold eye-contact during communication may be perceived as an indicator of confidence in one cultural context whereas the same behaviour may be perceived as disrespectful in another.

The role of perception in communication cannot be overstated. Those of you who are thoughtful communicators may often spend considerable time thinking through how to phrase something – particularly when you are about to have a tricky conversation in a pastoral care situation or a conflict situation with a friend, for example. You may choose your words carefully, pick a time that is appropriate for the conversation, and present your message in the least offensive way you could imagine. And yet – you may have had experiences where your well-intended message resulted in great (perceived) offense. You may even had experiences where you thought everything went well, only to find out later that the person with whom you spoke was deeply hurt or offended and had thereafter chosen to avoid you.

The challenge with interpersonal communication is that we have an illusion of message-control. In other words, we often put great emphasis on the intention of the message, carefully crafting it to best convey what is intended. But of equal (or arguably greater) importance is the perception of the message. In other words, no matter how well-intended our message, the only message to which the other person has access is how s/he perceives what we said (or did). Our well-intended message is filtered through the socio-cultural, experiential, and contextual lenses of the other person before s/he hears it. And this gap between intention and perception has the potential to cause great frustration and hurt on both sides.

What then can we do to bridge this gap between intention and perception in communication? Here’s is a suggested S.T.E.P. toward this goal:

  1. Self-reflection – if others’ perception of our messages are influenced by their culture, personality, and experiences, then we too likewise filter others’ messages through our own set of socio-cultural lenses. As such, reflect on the lenses through which you perceive your world. How has your past influenced the way you see things? Have you considered how different the world looks to someone else who does not share your cultural background or upbringing? Who can give you an honest evaluation of your own prejudices of which you may be unaware? Are you willing to listen to such an honest evaluation, even if you don’t like what you hear?

 

  1. Thoughtful clarification – when someone says something that is hurtful or offensive, our first response might not be to give them the benefit of the doubt – especially if we have not often been at the receiving end of the benefit of the doubt. But a healthy recognition of the gap between perception and intention facilitates giving one another the benefit of the doubt when, at first glance, a message seems hurtful or offensive. A measured attempt at seeking clarification can potential prevent further misunderstanding: “When you said (…) it sounded to me as if you were implying (….) Is that what you meant?”

 

  1. Empathetic understanding – despite all your careful preparation, despite many well-intended attempts at clarification and dialogue, there are instances where the gap between intention and perception simply cannot be bridged; partly because we are imperfect humans and partly because it is impossible to tailor your message to suit multiple perceptual lenses (such as when you are speaking to a group of people, for example). In such instances, it is healthy to recognise that the listener does not have direct access to your well-intended message; s/he only has access to the message s/he perceives. Therefore respond to any perceived offense with empathetic understanding, putting yourself in the other person’s position as best as you can and recognising that there may be instances where you may have to agree to disagree.

 

  1. Prayerful preparation – if you have a relationship with God then you have the facility to pray for supernatural help with overcoming the perceptual gap, particularly when you are about to have a difficult or sensitive conversation. Personally, I consider this the most significant S.T.E.P. toward bridging the gap between intention and perception in my own communication.

 

About the Author: Lily Arasaratnam-Smith is a Professor of Communication at Alphacrucis College.

 

[1] For more on Perception, see Arasaratnam, L. A. (2015). Perceptions. In J. M. Bennett (Ed.), The SAGE encyclopaedia of intercultural competence. Sage Publications.