While I was speaking at a marriage conference, a couple came up to me and voiced their displeasure with each other. “He never acknowledges the small things I do to encourage him,” she said with arms folded. “Every morning when I brush my teeth I make sure to put toothpaste on his brush. It’s my way of letting him know I’m thinking of him.” The husband’s sarcastic laugh took me by surprise. “You disagree,” I said. “It’s her subtle way of bossing me around,” he replied. “As if I need to be reminded to brush my own teeth! I’m not a child!” Toothpaste on a brush was a simple fact, but what it meant was driving this couple apart.
While it may sound surprising, communication scholars believe that some, maybe most, of reality is created by our perception. The statement becomes less shocking when we realize that there are two levels of reality. First-order realities are observable aspects of people, things, or situations. Second-order realities are the meanings we attach to people, things, or situations. Seldom do first-order realities cause conflict (toothpaste on a toothbrush). However, second-order realities often foster disagreement (what the toothpaste represents to me).
Effective communication is a matter of understanding that what a person does—coming home late, not returning a text, leaving dishes in the sink—are merely what philosopher John Searle calls, brute facts that require us to assign meaning to them. A co-worker is a late to a meeting you are leading. His lateness is merely a raw fact that has to be interpreted. Was he purposefully disrespectful, or merely running late? Searle’s point is that meanings—our interpretations—are not inherently attached to actions.
To promote productive conversations we need to check the meanings we give to the actions of others through a process called perception-checking. This crucial process has three distinct parts. First, provide a description of the behavior in question. Second, offer two possible interpretations of the behavior. Third, ask for clarification about how to interpret the behavior.
To promote productive conversations we need to check the meanings we give to the actions of others through a process called perception-checking.
For example, your family finally finds a night when everyone is home. You decide to make dinner so the family can reconnect. During dinner your teen-age daughter keeps checking text messages (first order reality) that greatly frustrates you because you are sure it’s a sign that she’d rather be somewhere else (second-order reality). The mistake would be to leave your interpretation unchecked and allow your anger toward her to grow. Try the following: “Kate, you keep checking your phone. Is everything ok with your friends, or are you kind of bored?” She may tell you that one of her friends is having a hard time, or just received some exciting news that she has to share! If that’s the case it may be worth it to allow her to wrap up the conversation with one or two more texts so she can focus on dinner. If she tells you she is bored, thank her for her honesty and think through how you might address her feelings at a later date.
Tim Muehlhoff is a professor of communication at Biola University and author of several books, including I Beg to Differ and Marriage Forecasting. His most recent publication, Defending Your Marriage, speaks to spiritual warfare in marriage and how to equip yourself to defend your relationship. For the past 18 years, he and his wife, Noreen, have been frequent speakers at FamilyLife marriage conferences. Muehlhoff regularly writes and speaks for the Biola University Center for Marriage and Relationships. Follow Dr. Muehlhoff on Twitter.