Actually, this is an example of a very dangerous triangle. Someone says something.  You respond not to the words but to what you think the person “really” means.

She asks, “Do you have the time to go by Anna’s house and drop this off on your way home?”You hear, “You’d better be willing to do me this  little favor and go out of your way to drop this off on your way home or I’m going to pull a guilt trip on you.”

You surrender and drop it off on your way home even though you really don’t have the time to spare. Now you’ve ceded your power to what you imagine someone else is thinking, and you’re resentful, or at least annoyed. Why not assume she really was asking whether you had the time?

Maybe you know the person well enough to be accurate in your interpretation of the unspoken meaning. It would still be much better to respond to the words that are spoken. What if you said, “Honestly,  I’ll be late getting home if I do that.” If you are kind, you might then say something like “Would it help if I drop it off tomorrow morning?” If the hidden words were indeed intended to induce guilt, you’ve given the speaker and yourself the first lesson in being direct. And you’ve avoided resentment.

I heard once of a faculty member who found a note posted to his door. “I stopped by but you weren’t here.” The faculty member read, “You were supposed to be in your office, but you weren’t and I’m annoyed.” Just at that point someone else arrived and was shown the note with a comment something like “I’m getting sick and tired of these complaining students.” How much better, and more accurate, would it have been to take the words at face value. “I stopped by but you weren’t here.” – a simple statement of fact.

That’s the kind of mistake that can cost friendships or business problems if e-mails aren’t read carefully before being sent.

Consider two people in the process of breaking up a relationship. “Please send me the number of the last check you sent from our joint account before we closed it.” The recipient reads, “I’ve found another way to make your life miserable with an unnecessary request” and decides to withhold the information that the former partner doesn’t really need.  Do I need to describe what emotions follow in both ends?. My comment?” C’mon, just send the number. Why make life difficult for yourself?”

Let me end with a rather mundane example. Jane says to Mary, “I really like your new hair style.” Mary hears, “The way you used to wear your hair was really ugly.”

Oh yes, let me add one more thing. Sometimes silence is language. It’s really dangerous to hear words behind the silence, like “He didn’t say I did a good job on that project. The SOB liked it but isn’t willing to give me credit,” or, depending on your state of mind, “I guess he didn’t like the work I did.” Could it be that your project wasn’t even on his mind? hmmm …

I guess it all boils down to deciding that mind-reading is not a very effective means of communicating and is certainly not a safe stimulus to a response.

I have a feeling you could supply better examples.

Oh yes I know what you’re thinking. “Couldn’t she have come up with some clearer examples?”



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  1. Interesting post, Mona, and the examples are good. “Gosh, Gordon say ‘good’ rather than ‘great’ – he must not have like them.” I get the point. Communication that’s not face-to-face leaves all kind of room for misunderstanding Face-to-face is hard enough, but at least the words are accompanied by body language, tone of voice, volume, etc. This is hard stuff!!!

  2. I think the more you care about a person’s opinion of you, the more sensitive you are to how they phrase things and your imagination takes over. I’m getting much better in that department as I age.

    • that’s it, Marilyn. So clear.An that caring is so often for me in the blood – completely ingrained.

      • It certainly is infectious. And some situations so encourage it. I once had a book on my shelf titled “The Opposite of Everything is True.” It was a book about the experience of living in an alcoholic environment, though I think it applies to many dysfunctional situations. How difficult for a child for whom it ends up “in the blood — completely ingrained.”

        Side comment: Isn’t it wonderful that you and Marilyn and I can have this conversation across miles and oceans.

      • Yes! thank you for helping me noticing that. It is a wonder indeed, and nothing to take for granted. Thank you, Mona and Marilyn, for dipping into my life and blessing it with your words and presence

    • I guess the most important piece of what you’ve said, Marilyn,is that with the blessing of age we enjoy decreasing reliance on other people’s opinions. Thanks so much for you comment.

  3. Mona, I can hear this again and again and again. Breathing relieved, remembering, it is just this simple. And then I hear a sentence and go on automatic again. Sitting and breathing with that for a while…I see how much that scared child inside tried to figure out what she was supposed to do and how to react, trying for her bare life to do what she thought the others means. Ah. That helps. Going to sit with that little one and embrace her long and warmly

  4. Oh so important, Leelah, embracing that little one. Sometimes it helps to carry a photo around to “feel” the presence. I just love your comments. So powerful.

  5. LOL on the last line! Good way to start the day. Thanks.
  6. I enjoyed this thought-provoking post – and I liked your subtle sense of humor at the end where you focus on your own examples. They were absolutely perfect.

  7. You’ve got it> You are majestically in the groove. Excellent thinking on both sides of the issues. BRAVO!!!!!

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