July 17th, 2008

ozarque figure

Verbal self-defense; two "hostile language" interaction questions...

A while ago, in the context of a discussion of the negative communication patterns I call "hostile language"
[at http://ozarque.livejournal.com/533489.html ],
benndragon commented:

"I am reminded of an instance where a comment meant to be inclusive was interpreted by a friend to exclude her, which resulted in significant hurt feelings. When she told me of this I apologized profusely -- attempting to tell her she was wrong about the meaning of my comment would do nothing to change that plain fact (ETA: that her feelings were hurt) and would certainly lead to even more pain. Intentions are all well and good, but when it comes to communication sometimes you will fail to accomplish them -- that's life without telepathy for ya. My question is, what should you do when you've discovered such a failure of intention? My response was the best I could do at the time, but I'm wondering if there's a better one."

And babalon_it added:

"I wonder about this as well. Does it work to apologize and then ask: 'How could I have phrased it better, given my intention to be [helpful,inclusive, whatever]?' "

I wasn't there for the interaction between benndragon and the friend, which means that I have no idea about the tune the words were set to, the tone of voice, or any of the other body language. That's a problem, always, because the nonverbal communication can make a huge difference. That said, here's my opinion.

The best thing to do in a case like this is to simply say, as sincerely and warmly as possible, "I'm so sorry I hurt you." Period. As benndragon accurately points out, it's a mistake to say "That wasn't what I meant at all; you misunderstood me." For a listener already feeling under attack, that's going to carry a metamessage along the lines of, "I'm not in the wrong here, you are. You've made a mistake. You weren't capable of understanding what I said to you." The effect of that metamessage -- even if it's entirely in the listener's imagination and you mean nothing of the kind -- is to cancel your apology. Just say "I'm so sorry I hurt you" and wait for the listener's response before saying anything more.

babalon_it's question was:
"Does it work to apologize and then ask: 'How could I have phrased it better, given my intention to be [helpful,inclusive, whatever]?' "

The first problem with this tactic is that "given my intention to be X" presupposes that the listener has misunderstood, has made a mistake, and is wrong. Like "That wasn't what I meant at all; you misunderstood me," its real-world effect is to cancel your apology. The second problem is that it puts the listener on the spot, handing the listener an unexpected responsibility for improving the wording of whatever you said that was misinterpreted. The most likely response to that question is: "For crying out loud, how am I supposed to know what you should have said, when you didn't even know that yourself?"

It's hard to just say "I'm so sorry I hurt you" when your personal conviction is that you're innocent, that you meant no harm, and that this person has twisted your words and distorted your meaning. But if the relationship matters to you, it's the wisest strategy.