How to break a communication impasse

Speech bubble man and woman

OK, I admit it: despite my profession, I’m no paragon of perfect communication, particularly when emotions get in the way. So let me tell you about my lovely husband and me, being thoroughly human and flawed and a little bit pathetic.

Through our seven years together, we’ve had the same communication issue crop up, causing its fair share of conflict and heartache. The subject in question were the words “I’m sorry”. Easy to understand, right?


Turns out that when I asked for an “I’m sorry”, I wanted my feelings acknowledged. He thought I wanted an unconditional apology even if he’d done nothing wrong. That was an Inigo Montoya moment for both of us! We discovered it when I said, “I need an expression like we have in Spanish: lo siento.” Lo siento is sometimes used as an apology, but more often it’s a sentiment. It literally means, “I feel it”, and when you say it to someone, you are expressing empathy. So it took us seven years (what’s the rush, right?) to realise that we had different meanings for the same expression, but when we did, the issue was done and dusted, forever.

We all have different interpretations of common words and expressions, particularly in an age of jargon, psychobabble, and buzzwords. It is the cause of much conflict and not a simple matter of taking it to a dictionary! If you are communicating with someone and going around in circles to the point where you think screaming uncontrollably might make a nice change, here is how to move the conversation forward.

Stop for a moment, pick out a key word or two in what the person has been saying, and politely ask, “Excuse me for a moment. Before we continue, could you please tell me what you mean by [the word/s]?”

The person will stop and tell you. Listen. Then repeat their definition back to them, exactly the way they said it, without – this is very important – any paraphrasing. This will immediately push the conversation forward, for several very important reasons.

It’s easy. Give it a go for instant understanding – unless you’ve got seven years to spare!