“What did you mean by that?”

Some of you wake up every day, year round, to blue skies and t-shirt weather, but this time of year some of you wake up hoping for a high in double digits. Or at least no wind. Isn’t it interesting that we all say January is “winter?”  Since Santa with a white beard and red outfit is a European creation, that sleigh and reindeer combo makes perfect sense for delivering gifts in snowy December. If you live in Boston, or Minneapolis, or Missoula you might not think about it much, but if you live in Tampa or Sante Fe you need to make adaptations. I don’t live in a warm climate so I don’t know how Santa gets around to those chimneys, but I’m pretty sure he doesn’t use that sleigh.

But back to the idea of “winter.”  We all know winter is one of four seasons, from December through February, but my perception of winter is probably different from your perception of winter. I like the idea of a cold season, but in my small town the temperature can be anywhere from 30 degrees to 70 degrees, and snow is unlikely. Freezing rain is common. My friend out in Salt Lake City just emailed me that the temperature is minus 2 and they have five feet of snow. So how do she and I talk about “winter” and really understand each other?

Content is one thing (definitions, facts, figures, even concepts) but context is so important in communication.  How I think about winter is shaped by my experience of it. So here are a few things to remember in our conversations with each other:

  • Suspend judgment about the other’s perspective. Maybe what they mean is not what I’m picturing as they speak.  I need to keep listening without evaluating.
  • Don’t assume you get it- ask lots of questions to enhance your understanding.
  • Try to paraphrase (summarize in your own words) so that your interpretation can be assessed by the other person.

If concepts we all learned in kindergarten  (spring, summer, fall winter) can have different meanings in different contexts, think about a conversation that includes words like “performance,” “satisfied,” soon,” or “patriotic.”  Maybe we should make a New Year’s resolution to ask at least once a day, “What did you mean by that?”

4 thoughts on ““What did you mean by that?”

  1. Jeanette Smith

    I love this post since communication is so simple yet so hard. How about adding this statement as well to the question repertroire: “Tell me more about that.”

    1. nwinfrey

      Jeanette, I like your phrase better! Probably anything we say with kindness and attention will improve understanding. We just have to remember to ask.

  2. Angela

    These days with most communication happening between email and texting, I think emotion, inflection and the personal connection to other real people gets lost on those keyboards. Even emoticons don’t always convey your true facial expression and spirit on your side of the story!

    1. nwinfrey

      You are right-you know if communication is sometimes difficult in person that it will be even more difficult when you are just reading your phone. I think we have to be smart about which topics are best discussed in person,and when an email will do just fine. If you find yourself using a lot of emoticons maybe that is a clue that you should stop texting and call!

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