“Be nice,” Louisa said, defending her husband. 

“Nice? That was nice,” I shot back, joking, of course. 

Be nice,” she repeated, furrowing her brows, letting me know that she wasn’t messing around. 

“Wait, you’re being serious?” I asked. 

“Yes, you need to be nice.” 

The Discomfort Of Being Misunderstood 

I was confused.

Ed, Louisa’s husband, asked me if we were trying to sell our brand-new beach home, in a community we’ve already fallen in love with. 

“Are you on crack?” seemed like the most appropriate response at that moment.   

“I was being funny,” I said, defending my reply. 

“It’s not funny,” she said, “You need to be nice.” 

When Your Communication Doesn’t Convey Your Intentions 

The last thing I want to do is be mean, especially with two people I genuinely like. We’ve shared food, time, resources, and stories. She let me use her bike for weeks because I didn’t have one yet. 

This conversation got uncomfortable quick, and I wasn’t sure how it even happened. Part of me wanted to pretend like it didn’t happen, change the subject, and move on. Another part of me wanted to get up and walk back to my house. 

A deeper part of me wanted to understand. 

Seeking Understanding Is Key 

Recounting the interaction word-for-word, I sought to understand what I said that came across as mean. I didn’t get it. 

“Saying he’s on crack is like saying he’s crazy, which he would be if he thought we were selling our new home in this beautiful community,” I said. 

Still, the look in her face was clearly not impressed. At this point, I tried to get out of feeling like a jerk, which she noticed and pointed out. “You feel bad,” she finally said, “It’s okay. We know you’re a good person.” 

Feeling Bad? Get Curious 

If you know I’m a good person, then why did you think I was being mean? I wanted to say but didn’t. Instead, I got quiet. 

Even though I knew my intention was good, it was clear that my words landed poorly. In the end, communication is what they hear, not necessarily what we say. And, if the relationship matters, it’s important to understand what they heard.   

A few minutes later, with discomfort still lingering, we headed home. 

Communication Is What They Heard 

The moment we walked through the door, I felt the pull to defend myself with Yvette, my wife, who was there for the interaction. Instead of saying anything, I remembered three keys to growth as a human being who’s in relationship with other human beings: 

  1. Be a learner, not a knower.
  2. When we’re defensive, we have to look at what we are defending. Whatever we’re defending is prohibiting us from learning what’s being offered.
  3. Few people are skilled at giving feedback, but if the feedback is hitting on something inside of us (leaving us feeling defensive), it’s worth paying attention to.

Use The Feedback 

The next morning, I sat and thought about Ed, Louisa, and the interaction. They are from France, and Ed has only been in the states for a little more than a handful of years. That’s when it finally dawned on me—my communication style wasn’t conveying well. 

The more I thought about the challenges of living in a foreign country, the more I understood their reaction to my comment. Perhaps in a few months or years from now, we’ll know each other well enough to speak without considering the potential impact of the words we choose. 

Two Key Questions To Improve Relationships 

Until then, I will continue strengthening this relationship (and any similar relationships) by asking these two key questions when I get hard-to-take feedback: 

  • What was my intention?
  • What was my impact?

It is through our willingness to consider both answers that we have the information we need to strengthen our relationships—at home, at work, and in our communities. 

Here’s to your greatness,  

Misti Burmeister 

Misti Burmeister helps leaders and their team have conversations they keep avoiding but need to have. For nearly 20 years, she has facilitated communication that results in trust, increasing engagement and productivity across generations. Make sure your communication is coming across the way you intend, visit https://www.MistiBurmeister.com