Adam Blatner

Words and Images from the Mind of Adam Blatner

Cut Me Some Slack: Forgiveness or Excuse?

Originally posted on January 5, 2011

My dear wife Allee is one of the most meticulous and intelligent people I know, and recently she was bemoaning her own lack of clarity: She had composed an email to a friend and on receiving a response that had obviously misinterpreted her message, realized that what she had sent was understandably confusing. I was reminded of a button or banner (back when these were fashionable in the 1970s) that said, “I know you believe you understand what you think I said, but I am not sure that what you heard was what I meant.”

I responded to Allee that some self-forgiveness was appropriate because all in all she was one of the more clear communicators—most people being more muddy. I said that my imaginary friend Zordak (who travels among the planets and galaxies sort of like the folks on Star Trek) said that earth-people are only about 10-12% evolved as conscious beings, compared with other life forms he had visited. So we should cut ourselves some slack. She responded that this was not an excuse for the lack of intellectual rigor that pervaded our species, and even among our erstwhile bright youth in our culture. There is a slacker-“whatever” mentality that fails to even realize that sharper, more critical thinking, clear writing and speaking, and the like are worthwhile, very much needed, and have meaningful payoffs. I replied that I agreed, and there is a fine balance among the activities of forgiveness, compassion, and yet not using this as an excuse.

So there are two themes here: First, clear communications deserves to be recognized as a value and a category of behavior worth attending to. There are component skills and tendencies to lapse into lower levels of rigor. Indeed, miscommunications are frequent and often not the “fault” of the recipient for “not listening.” Many people—including folks with significant levels of higher education under their belt—are dismal in the ways they communicate. (“Too busy” is the middle-aged equivalent of the teenagers’ and college-age young adults’ use of “whatever.”)

Second, while a measure of forgiveness is appropriate for lapses, this should not be allowed to blind us to the need for efforts at being meticulous. We need a 14 – 22% level of intellectual humility—not enough to tie us into knots of self-doubt or self-consciousness (that’s too obsessive), but enough to check out with others whether what they heard was indeed what we meant.

3 Responses to “Cut Me Some Slack: Forgiveness or Excuse?”

  • Helen says:

    Hi Adam. The topic of communication is close to my heart.

    I enjoyed the quote in your first paragraph. I would like to add it to my signature in various Internet forums but I am afraid it may be misunderstood as a bit aggressive and self-righteous. 🙂 It reminds me of a quote that I wrote down long ago from The Crisis in Human Affairs by JG Bennett (not verbatim as I cannot find the exact quote in the book now):

    “We tend to see ourselves in the light of our intentions, which are invisible to others, while we see others in the light of their actions, which are visible to us. We have a situation in which misunderstandings and injustices are the order of the day.”

    Apart from changes in education systems and standards and the way we communicate more easily and instantaneously these days, the communication gap is also widening these days because people from all over the world are now interacting much more freely and it is not always obvious whether or not English is their first language.

  • Adam Blatner says:

    Hello, Helen. Although there are more people being born and getting less education, there is also a growth of learning about communications itself. One point I make in a recent blog is the growing awareness of the need for feedback, for checking out. I imagine people saying thinks like, “Did I understand what you said? Let me re-phrase it and you correct me until you feel that I really heard what you meant.” That activity of feedback and reiteration is what I call “mutuality,” (see link to ) and it would begin to substitute for the tendency to assume that what I say or write is being correctly understood by you, or that how you interpret what I say is indeed what I mean. I’m reasonably bright, but I sometimes muddle my communications with my most understanding wife Allee, and she generously engages in forgiveness and allowance for clarification. We do this for each other. It takes a tiny bit more time, but it’s padded by friendly reassurances and so makes for what ants do when they meet on the path—there may be several passes of antennae touching before the connection feels finished. (smile)

  • Helen says:

    Thanks Adam, I will try to be more conscious and appreciative of mutuality in my communications. 🙂

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