What Did She Mean by That?


“What did she mean by that?” is a phrase I’ve heard all too often throughout my life. Unfortunately, it’s rarely from the person who wants to know, directly to me. It almost always comes by a more circuitous (and less confrontational) route from a peace-making third party. The trouble is, half the time, I am caught off-guard, unaware that something I said wasn’t clear. Or was offensive. Or confusing.

I’ll be the first to say (and probably the loudest) we all need to do a better job of taking responsibility for our words. But how can you take responsibility for words you don’t know were heard in a way you didn’t intend?

From the Receiver’s Perspective

Let’s look at both sides of this coin. I’ll start with trying to see it from the receiver’s perspective. How can you tell if your words missed the mark? Are being misinterpreted? Were unintentionally offensive or hurtful?

  • Body language. The biggest clues come from the way someone physically reacts. Sometimes they freeze. Or they may shift uncomfortably. Or just look away. That’s their way of trying really hard not to react. So, watch closely. Pay more attention.
  • Stumbling with what to say. If you unintentionally upset or offended someone, chances are they were also caught off guard. This often leads to stumbling as they try to figure out how to respond.
  • Blank stares. Or changing the subject suddenly. That’s what happens when they can’t recover fast enough.

These are all clear signs that you’ve mis-stepped into poo with your words. When you see it, you have an opportunity in that moment. Seize the moment and fix it. There will literally never be an easier time to do so.

From the Giver’s (Offender’s?) Perspective

How about from the flip side of our proverbial coin? What do those of us need to do who have received the confusing or offensive words? What is our responsibility?

  • Speak up.
    • “Whoa, that wasn’t very nice.”
    • “Wait, I missed something.”
    • “I must have done something to offend you because I didn’t see that one coming.”
    • Or any other method for communicating that you’ve just been wounded or confused by words.
  • Ask questions. Clearly, my favorite go-to piece of advice.
    • “Wait, can you help me understand what you meant by that? I’m not sure I got it.”
    • Or any other clarifying question.
  • Give grace. Having been on the offending side way too many times, let me be the first to suggest that 90% of the time, that probably wasn’t the intention. Now, let me also be first to acknowledge that this doesn’t take away any damage or pain caused. It simply is meant to help you see that I need you to help me. Help me understand that I created confusion or pain, and then be willing to let me fix it.

Bottom Line? Be Brave.

If we all take more responsibility for making sure we speak with clearer intention, as well as help each other see when that hasn’t happened, life will be better. It may not always be the easiest or most comfortable path, but it beats the hell out of letting things fester.

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