Constantly Misunderstood and Under Verbal Attack? You Might Be the Problem.

By making these common communication mistakes, you could be stoking misunderstanding and conflict.

Constantly Misunderstood and Under Verbal Attack? You Might Be the Problem.

6. Recognize that everybody (including you) is under the influence.

People under the influence of alcohol or drugs do not make good decisions. Understand that the people with whom you deal are under the influence of something; perhaps not alcohol or drugs, but at a minimum the everyday stresses of daily life. Perhaps someone just had a fight with a spouse, a significant other was diagnosed with cancer, a child was just expelled from school, one’s vehicle transmission is making a noise and funds to get it repaired are not available, or someone just got a bad performance appraisal. People undergoing such stress may not listen to what you are saying, fly off the handle or be unable to think rationally.

And guess what?!?! You are also under the influence of something, just like your communication partner, so your communication capabilities may be far from perfect. If you are unaware of your own stresses or your emotional triggers, you are more likely to get into verbal conflict and fail to deescalate the situation that results.

7. Pay attention to non-verbal cues.

One provides a lot of information to another through non-verbal behavior, and sometimes non-verbal messages inadvertently contradict and even undermine one’s words. A person looking at his or her watch may be suggesting (or perceived to be suggesting) that the other person’s message is wasting his time. A yawn or crossing one’s arms may also thwart effective communications.

Sometimes, cultural or generational differences can result in non-verbal behavior others perceive as counterproductive. For instance, Americans are generally taught to be punctual and to look at another person in the eyes as signs of respect. On the other hand, some other cultures consider ending an on-going conversation with one person to keep an appointment with another to be an affront to the first. Some other cultures also consider looking into the eyes of an authority figure to be disrespectful. In this example, one person may consider the other diverting his eyes to be deceptive, not respectful.

Consider differences in perceived personal space. Someone from New York City, where people live in constant close proximity, might only expect two or three feet of personal space. However, someone raised on an Iowa farm where the nearest neighbor is five miles away may consider anyone within six or seven feet to be threatening. These perceptions might complicate and shape how each perceives the other’s message.

And don’t get me started about how my wife rolls her eyes at me in our conversations. I have learned to act on the eye roll, which often has the exact opposite meaning of her words.

8. It’s not what you said. It’s how you said it.

When I was a child, I heard this phrase at least 500 times, usually just before my dearly departed mother grounded me. A snarky tone, sarcasm and even inflection can undermine your message.

Consider the following simple seven-word phrase: “I didn’t say you were stupid.” This sentence can take on three very different things, based on which word is emphasized. I didn’t say you were stupid (She said you were stupid.). I didn’t say you were stupid (I was thinking you were stupid). I didn’t say you were stupid (I said you were an ignoramus). Listen to your tone and inflection, and while you’re at it, also pay attention to your volume and pitch, which also affect how your message is received and understood.

9. Don’t say the wrong thing.

We all use certain phrases that enflame verbal conflict and heighten non-compliance. How many of us have told an agitated individual to “calm down,” or told a questioning individual “you wouldn’t understand” or “…because those are the rules.” These common phrases undermine communications. In the first example, we are telling people who are already upset that they have a behavioral problem. Telling an individual who asks a question that he or she would not understand has a corrosive (not so) hidden message: you are stupid. The hidden message between hiding behind the “rules” suggests you are not only lazy; you are also an impotent functionary with no independent decision authority. Why would you want to undermine your authority in this manner?

10. Ask and give options.

As noted above, people do not want to be treated like children; they want some control over their environment. While you may have the authority to command someone to do something, it’s generally better to ask. Further, give options to people so they feel they have some control over their own destiny. This doesn’t mean you should not or cannot influence their choices to get them to comply with your wishes. If engaged in a disagreement, tell the person he or she has options and then offer an explanation. Tell them the positive consequences of the decision you want them to make. Then, identify the negative consequences of not doing what you’ve asked (and really pile on the negative consequences). More often than not, they will comply with your wishes, especially if you conduct this conversation out of public view so they can comply with your request while saving face.

11. Be patient.

Too often, we hurry from one engagement or task to the next, so we try to conclude our interactions as quickly as possible. Clearly, an officer cannot spend three hours on a simple traffic stop. At the same time, people want to feel they are being respected. They want to explain their point of view (or give an excuse) and they feel they deserve your time and attention. Also, as noted above, people under the influence may need additional time to understand the situation and articulate a response. Active listening and developing empathy take time, so slow down the interaction and savor your successes.

12. Don’t create self-fulfilling prophecies.

If you believe the person with whom you are about to deal is a jerk and expect conflict based on past experiences, your interaction is likely to be a disaster. The reason for the impending failure is that your non-verbal cues will anger your communication partner and put him or her on the defense. In sports, there is a concept known as positive vision in which an athlete envisions himself hitting a ball, making a putt, scoring a basket, etc. Envision positive outcomes to your interactions, and let these visions direct your behavior. They will help you achieve positive outcomes and success.

Adopt These Strategies Now to Improve Your Interactions

The adoption of these communications suggestions and principles will increase compliance while reducing conflict and complaints. They will also enhance others’ views of your professionalism. However, they will not always allow you to avoid verbal and even physical conflict since some individuals will not or cannot reason or take direction, disappointment or refusal. Therefore, no matter how proficient a communicator you consider yourself to be, never be complacent since physical escalation can occur quickly and with minimal warning.

Don’t allow someone to get inside your personal space, watch for attack signals, such as blading one’s body, looking to the sides (for witnesses or an escape route), becoming very loud or very quiet, inability to articulate one’s thoughts, etc. Additionally, call in a colleague or security official if you feel threatened, and document your interaction, reporting it to appropriate human resources, disciplinary, mental health, and/or security officials.

Effective communications are what service professionals do, and improving your effectiveness is not overly difficult. Enjoy the challenge and reap the benefits.

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About the Author


Dr. and Lt. John Weinstein retired as a senior police commander at one of the country’s largest institutions of higher education where, in addition to other responsibilities, he directed officer and college-wide active incident response training and community outreach. He is a popular national and international speaker and is widely published on many institutional and municipal law enforcement matters. Weinstein also consults with Dusseau-Solutions on active incident and all-hazard topics involving schools, churches, businesses and other public venues.

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6 responses to “Constantly Misunderstood and Under Verbal Attack? You Might Be the Problem.”

  1. Ken Hantman says:

    Good article! Things we all should think about and live all the time. A book you will enjoy if you’ve not read it is “Speak Peace in a World of Conflict” by Dr. Marshall Rosenberg.
    Incidentally, I have a cousin named John Weinstein. You don’t look anything alike.
    Best regards,

  2. Andrew Stevens says:

    A lot of truth in this article. Misunderstanding is much easier that most recognize. I teach oral communication and interpersonal communication on the university level and on the corporate workshop level. One of my key points is how easy it is to be misunderstood and the need for paraphrasing or repeating back for clarification or confirmation. Well said.

  3. DJ Lawrence says:

    Very well put. I’ve learned many of these the hard way, but haven’t seen these street lessons put so well. The typo at the beginning, saying ethically diverse instead of ethnically diverse, I wonder if that was on purpose or by accident, because you’d be correct either way. Many countries don’t share the same sense of ethics, and sometimes that carries over to North America, with conflict often the result. Some are more etiquette, if you look at lineups in some parts of the world, coughing, spitting, and so on. Others are more behavioral and can get into officer safety and integrity issues, where you are expected to “tip” a traffic cop in some countries to avoid or reduce your penalty, or certain offenses require you to fight to defend your honour. I watched developing world villagers stuff a live chicken with gravel to increase its weight at market and thought “that isn’t right (cruel and dishonest too)”, but minutes later I saw a fresh grave of a child who died from malnutrition and I thought “what wouldn’t I do to prevent that”. Thanks for the great article!

  4. Steve Hoban says:

    Very good article, I’ve already shared it with a co-worker with whom I have a mentoring relationship. Whether it is the principles of Covey, Emotional Intelligence, or another “guru,” the bottom line here is that good communication is difficult and requires work. We can only be fully responsible for ourselves, but I’d argue that we have a responsibility to ourselves to do just that. As a baby boomer often working with younger people, I value the reminders this article provided me.

  5. UNO GEEKS says:

    Thank you for sharing such a nice and interesting blog and really very helpful article.

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