As a communicating creature, you can bet your life on the possibility that misunderstanding is the rule, not the exception.

We communicate with words and voice tone, as well as all sorts of non-verbals like time, space and body language--all of which are imprecise in conveying our unique felt experiences.

A word, a gesture, a tone of voice can mean anything. Unfortunately, being survival-oriented beasties, we humans tend to interpret those words, gestures and tones personally--looking first to our immediate survival and predicting the worst.

Here's an example.

You're pitching an idea to somebody. As you are speaking, you notice that they are tapping a pencil on their desk and repeatedly looking at their watch.

How would you interpret these non-verbals? What would you do?

Most people will answer by saying the other person is rude, busy or impatient. Many people would react to this situation by speaking faster; many others by apologizing. Either reaction presumes that the way you are interpreting these non-verbals is the way the sender is intending them--in other words, you are making it mean they are rude and impatient, then acting as if that interpretation is true.

My question to you is this: How do you know that THEY mean what YOU think they mean?

Short answer: You don't. What to do? Check it out.

To abort a misunderstanding in progress, this is the best formula I've found. I call it a Reality Check. There are three parts:

1. Verbalize the non-verbals. In other words, describe objectively what is going on. Like this:

"I notice you are fidgeting with that pencil and looking at your watch."

2. Tell them how you are interpreting their behavior.

"I'm guessing that means you are pressed for time and unable to give me your full attention right now."

3. Ask them for verification or clarification.

"Am I reading you right?" or "Is that what you mean?"

If you use this formula, make sure that your tone of voice is neutral, curious, wondering. Give them the opportunity to explain their intentions. Be willing to be wrong.

An added use for this kind of formula is to ward off potential conflict by confronting an issue early. For example:

"I noticed you were five minutes late for this meeting. I take that to mean you were unaware we would be starting on time. Am I right?"

"I have asked you three times to pick up your toys and I notice they are still on the floor. I'm assuming that means you prefer to give up television tonight. Am I right?"

Play around with this one. It will help you avoid powerless "why did you..." questions that produce no result but defensiveness and counterattack.

Author's Bio: 

Speaker, trainer and author Jan Pedersen offers keynote speeches, training seminars and workshops to organizations who want to improve interpersonal effectiveness, reduce or eliminate conflict and increase results. Visit her website or subscribe to the monthly newsletter "Communication Insights" by emailing