The Rainman of Relational Meanings


I’m sure you remember the 1988 Academy Award winning movie Rain Man.  The main character, Ray was good with numbers.  From counting cards in Vegas to counting toothpicks on a diner floor, the Rain Man could handle complex mathematical computations with ease.  I envy the Rain Man’s prowess with numbers.  Unfortunately, I am the anti-Rain Man.  I am profoundly hopeless with numbers.  If you’re gonna bring out the numbers, you’ll have to keep it simple with me.  2+2=4.  I just checked that with a calculator and it’s right.  I’m much better with figuring out human interactions and how they compute to build or tear down relationships.  Years ago, I counseled a woman who felt angry and abused by her spouse when he improperly set the table before meals.  She smoldered with anger and hurt for years believing that he was doing it the “wrong way” on purpose.  She was convinced that his table setting behavior was designed to demean and taunt her.  Her relational math was totally off.  In her assessment, improper table setting over the years equaled intentional cruelty or  2+2=953.  The husband honestly believed he was not only doing the task correctly but that his wife appreciated his efforts.  His relational math was also off.  He didn’t realize he was putting 2 and 2 together and coming up with a zero or less.  2+2=0  Inaccurate assumptions of relational meanings can keep people locked in confusing cycles of hurt and confusion for years.

Whether we recognize it or not, human interactions run on meaning.  In every communication exchange our brains and souls are scanning the information to decode the message sent.  “What did you mean by that?” is not just a statement of indignation.  In its purest form, it is THE question that we should be asking.  Sometimes the math is elegantly simple as when someone warmly and enthusiastically greets us.  We appraise the disclosure and formulate a congruous response.  Even those brief interactions entail a myriad of sophisticated assessments of voice tone, facial expression, past history, context, word selection, impact modulation and impression management.    The times we nail the meanings for a  2+2=4 success story are gratifying.   However, when the meanings don’t add up so well, we experience problems in relationship.

Obviously, the meanings we draw from our interactions determine how we react and behave with others.  Over the long haul, relationships are shaped and defined by the meanings we perceive.  One would think that a longstanding relationship would be less fraught with meaning breakdowns.  Not necessarily.  Like the couple in my opening illustration, people often carry an abundance of meaning distortions through the years.  Sadly, perceptual errors and misunderstandings can profoundly impede a relationship’s development.  Often the classic “he said/she said” standoff is preceded by a breakdown of “he meant/she meant.”  When the fractured meanings become entrenched in how we relate, they can take on a self-fulfilling life of their own.  For example, if I believe people are motivated to harm me, I may defend myself against their “attacks” with belligerent and antagonistic behavior.  Eventually, people will assume an adversarial posture toward me.  Their negative behavior will validate my belief in their evil intentions.  The feedback loop becomes locked in a predictable and destructive cycle.

So, what can we do about our problems with bad meaning math?  What will increase the chances of a 2+2=4 outcome in every interaction?  I’ll list three ways to reduce errors in misreading the meanings.  These methods may not eliminate all the misreads in relationships but they can sure help.

  1. Give up mind reading.   Embrace the truth that you are not good at it.  Instead of taking for granted that you know the disposition of someone else’s soul, engage in an honest and respectful dialogue.  Find out where they are actually coming from.  Maybe they are out to get you.  Maybe not.  Confirming either truth allows you to formulate a reasonable response.
  2. Assume neutral intent.  My colleague believes we should take an “assume-good-will” stance when assessing other’s actions.  I’m not as optimistic about people’s basic motivations.  It is true that most people are not out to hurt you or me.  By the same token, most people have not set our best interests as their priority.  Sad but true.  We are not the center of most people’s universe.  Others are consistently neutral toward us and extremely positive toward themselves.  Yep.  Human beings tend to think more about themselves than they think about you and me.  So, if you are wondering if a given interaction is about you…it probably isn’t.  Assume neutrality and respond accordingly.
  3. Apply empathy often.   Most bad interaction math can be avoided by simply putting yourself in someone else’s shoes.  Empathy isn’t a matter of imagining how you would feel in a similar situation.  Empathy is accurately perceiving another’s emotions and meanings.  Empathy doesn’t excuse bad behavior or encourage mistreatment.  It simply allows us to understand the bigger picture of another’s experience.  A little well placed empathy might only get me to 2+2=5 but that sure beats some of the more costly meaning miscalculations.

One final note about good meanings math:  Checking your answers against somebody else’s is always a good idea.  When I was completing my final statistics course for my doctorate I drove 90 minutes to Columbia every Sunday afternoon to check my homework with a kid in the stats lab.  He was nearly thirty years younger than me and looked kinda like Marilyn Manson.  But that guy knew how to do the computations.  I trusted his numbers like Charlie Babbitt trusted the Rain Man at the blackjack table.  Make sure you have at least one trustworthy person in your life to help process your relational meanings.  Don’t forget:  In the abundance of counselors there is safety. (Proverbs 11:14b)  Just make sure they have a good track record with basic relational math.

But shoot…it’s fortnight.  Go out there and take a few risks with your meaning computations.

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