Picture of an apple
When conversations get tricky, remember apples.

When Conversations Get Tricky—Remember Apples

When you look at that picture of an apple, what does it represent to you?


You might say it represents health—“An apple a day keeps the doctor away.”

You might say it represents gravity because of its role in Isaac Newton’s discovery.

You might be thinking about the story of Adam and Eve, and say it represents original sin.

You might remember the story of Snow White and you say the apple represents poison.

You might think of giving a teacher and apple, and therefore associate it with respect.

You might think of New York City, since it’s The Big Apple.

You might think of adoration if you’re the apple of someone’s eye.

You may think of William Tell shooting the apple off his son’s head with an arrow and associate it with heroism.

You might immediately associate it with a famous brand.

One simple red apple can mean many different things to many people. Or different things to you, depending on the context. Two of those things are complete opposites—health and poison—and yet we recognize the truth in both viewpoints.

This is why communication can be so tricky! We don’t know another person’s viewpoint until we ask. Unfortunately, we often forget this, and believe that our view is the only view or the “right” view. It’s so normal—so human of us—and yet it gets us into trouble too often.

What can we do differently to change this? The first step is simply being aware that we do it. Our brains are wired to make connections, so we can make sense of what is happening around us. It is estimated that “the human body sends 11 million bits per second to the brain for processing, yet the conscious mind seems to be able to process only 50 bits per second.” That means we have a lot of built-in shortcuts. We build those shortcuts all our life, based on experiences we’ve had, stories we’ve heard, family traditions, etc. Some shortcuts are important to keep us safe. For example, fire is hot and can burn us, and it can spread to other things near it, so we are careful with fire. Other shortcuts have simply become habits of thought, that translate into habits of action. For example, driving the exact same routes, buying the same brands consistently, or doing chores in the same order each week.

The next step is to be curious when communicating with others. That can sound like “When I think of apples, I think of health. What do you think of?” Or more practically, “I am thinking that the next best step on this project is to coordinate a meeting to decide the layout of the new form with our subject-matter experts by next Friday. What do you see as the next step?”

Our communication and our outcomes will improve when we get more information out of our heads and into the conversation.  Only then can we really ensure we are heading in the same direction or talking about the same things.

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