An old Vaudeville routine featured two very old friends - one extremely hard of hearing — attempting to converse after they had shared a meal. “I’ve had sufficiency,” said the first. “You say you went fishing?” asked his friend. “No,” he replied, “I said, I’ve had enough.” To which his friend responded, “You say you dip snuff?” The man who started the conversation snorted in exasperation, “You old fool!”

Sometimes, older folks (like me) have difficulty hearing and understanding because of hearing loss caused by aging. However, on a larger, more inclusive scale, the challenge of being clearly heard and our words understood, is a daunting task for human beings of every age - from toddlers to ancients. In the past year, we have learned the high cost of misinterpretation.

Mutual understanding is the heart of clear communication and both speaker and hearer are responsible for that understanding. When we speak or write, we are responsible for our choice of words, the way we put them together, our tone, and awareness of our context. When we listen to another, we have the responsibility of making sure that we are accurately understanding the meaning of what is being said.

In the course of an important conversation, for clarification, it’s often helpful to ask, “What are you hearing me say?” or to reflect “This is what I’m hearing.” This sort of understanding and clarification is especially vital in our closest relationships because there we are much more likely to make assumptions and to half-listen.

The danger of being misunderstood and the need to carefully choose our words increases when we communicate on social media. There we are addressing a potentially wider and unknown audience. Our posts and comments are out there and vulnerable to misinterpretation without our having the opportunity to amend or explain them. And there we are also more likely to “shoot from the hip.”

A plaque in my office says: “I know you believe you understand what you think I said but I am not sure you realize that what you heard is not what I meant.” That responsibility for clear understanding belongs to both the speaker and the hearer, the writer and the reader.

The poet Emily Dickinson reminds us why words matter:

“A word is dead

When it is said,

Some say.

I say it just

Begins to live

That day.”

Lord, allow us to paraphrase the beautiful prayer of Francis of Assisi: Grant that we might not only understand but also be understood. Amen.

John Paul Carter is a resident of East Parker County and a regular contributor to the Weatherford Democrat.

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