From a recent post to The Listserve (which you should join if you haven’t already), sent by someone who makes a living teaching rhetoric and communications:
…don’t get hung up on assuming the intent of the person communicating with you. What I mean is, it is impossible to know for sure what a person intended to mean when they say something to us. When I think of the missteps I make in everyday communication it is often because I assume why someone said something to me, I take offense at them for the purpose behind what they said. In reality, I can never know the intent behind their statement unless they tell me. Try and avoid making assumptions about the meaning of, and purpose behind, someone’s statement and see how it changes the flow of your communication.
This is valuable advice which I am determined to follow more closely. Now that my job entails working with a diverse set of customers, being a better communicator is increasingly important.
Having said that, remember that what is said is only part of what is communicated; there is also what is left unsaid, as well whether the communication is responsive, or not, to what you say. When you consider the totality of the communication, it may be possible to derive more information about intent– or it may equally be possible to make a wrong assumption. This is especially true of people who are avoidant, or who have personal, business, or political motives that lead them to conceal, evade, or avoid communicating clearly.
I’m reminded of RF test equipment such as signal generators. You use these devices to generate a particular waveform, which you then feed in to your transmitter or receiver so you can measure the output for distortion, clipping, and so on. You can measure how closely what you put in conforms to what you get out. Sadly we don’t have anything like that for human communication, apart from adaptive listening, which is a fascinating topic in itself but requires both parties to be actively engaged in the communication.
Always something new to learn…