A “Hysterical” Miscommunication
A few weeks ago my son had an out of the ordinary temper tantrum – OK, he was flipping out — during a sleepover with his grandparents. They were calling me, I was calling them, and all the while he is yelling and crying in the background.
It was stressful all around and the uncomfortable feeling lingered for days.
A Few Days Later
I was in an important meeting. My father was taking my son out for dinner and this was the first time they were alone together since “the tantrum incident.” I learned that part of the problem had been related to a miscommunication. I explained to my kiddo what a miscommunication was and how to deal with it but I was not feeling optimistic.
OK, OK, I was sick to my stomach. Dreading getting “the phone call” with the chilling sound of six-year old shrieks in the background.
My phone was on the table to manage time and use an app related to the meeting. So, when it vibrated receiving a text I became distracted and noticed. A picture of my son eating a big cup of ice cream with gummy bears on it appeared (hey, one person’s idea of disgusting is another’s delight)! Cute. Good sign.
Fifteen minutes later it vibrates again and a picture from my brother appears of my niece. There’s a caption but since I’m in the meeting I don’t read it figuring I’d check it out after the meeting.
Five minutes later I receive a text from my father again with one word: “hysterical.”
Cold sweats start coming over me.
I’m thinking “I can’t believe we’re going through this again and I don’t have the time or energy to deal with this. What’s his problem this time?”
I do what I can to remain focused in the meeting but was distracted by images in my head of my son kicking and screaming, beads of sweat appearing on my father’s upper lip, and the stressful conversations that are to come with my parents.
Finally, the meeting is over. I find a private space, take a few deep breaths, call my father, and ask how things are going.
His response: “Great!”
Great? GREAT? What in the world was he talking about?
The Ice Cream is Always Right
Well, as it turns out my father also received the text of my niece from my brother. It was a funny picture with an even funnier caption, and my father replied – to all – “hysterical.”
This comedy illustrates a dynamic that I see play out in mediation all the time, especially parent-teen mediation and divorce mediation: interpreting information out of context. I knew they were recently at an ice cream shop and my son looked as happy as could be.
Yet, I was so anxious about the possibility of my son acting out again that I automatically assumed that “hysterical” meant “my son is hysterical AGAIN!” An honest and reasonable misinterpretation of this situation but a potentially damaging one when it occurs in a tension filled relationship.
Apparently, having a difficult time dealing with miscommunication is not limited to six year old boys.
The Role of Context in Family Communication
I have found that the most successful mediations occur when clients are able to pause before reacting. When they take a few deep breaths before responding. When they clarify information to ensure that their assumptions are accurate. These steps are critical to avoiding miscommunication.
The narratives we have in our heads are just not always accurate.
Before getting hysterical make sure you have the facts and stay open to the possibility that there may be a different storyline than your interpretation.
Do you have any hysterical anecdotes that you’d like to share about miscommunication?
Please share your thoughts and comment below!