Miscommunication: When “You’re Wrong” Actually Means “You’re Right!”

I was sharing a meal with a couple a few days back and I got to witness a hilarious spectacle – they were arguing with each other. And it all began with the word “No.”

Alright… it didn’t really begin with the word “No”. But it was the word that sparked the argument between men and wife when everything really began as an one-sided explanation to a third party (me).

You see, Denise was explaining to me some of her concerns she had about an employee of hers. Unable to comprehend her motivation for some of her actions and decisions, I enquired further. However, much of the subsequent explanation and elaboration failed to enlighten me. That was when her husband attempted to make things clearer… and he started by saying “No”.

He began with, “No Denise, it’s like this…”

As Denise struggled to clarify her position, her husband, Dave attempted to put things in perspective for my benefit and our consideration.

I must say that I was really grateful for the gesture, because I think he did provide much more information and description than what Denise managed to muster during her explanation. Still, what tickled me was how Denise reacted every time Dave interjected and started his presentation with the word “No,…”

“No, maybe Andy is… that’s why he’s behaving this way”

“No, let me finish first…”

“No, it’s not like this…”

“No, it’s like this…”

Now you may be wondering what’s the big deal with a couple disagreeing with each other during an argument. Well, there’s nothing really interesting about that, really. However, as I sat across from them as a witness and third party observer to the unfolding drama, I couldn’t help but marvel at the comicality behind the anger and frustration that Denise seem to be displaying – because despite Dave’s repeated reiteration (actually, it was more like a suggestion) that Denise was “wrong”, he was really supporting the point that she was trying to make, albeit she hadn’t managed to put it across clearly then.

Imagine the irony and frustration and irritation that Denise was displaying when Dave was constantly suggesting that she was “wrong”, when she was in fact being proved right by Dave! I swear if it went on any longer, Denise might just explode and go into labour right there and then. (She’s six months pregnant by the way!)

Well, I couldn’t help it. As the third party observer I couldn’t help but marval at this episode of miscommunication between husband and wife… over the simple, two-letter word that is “No”.

Yes, the word is “No.” I mean No… *Argh* You Get it.

You see, ladies and gentleman, “No” is a powerful word in the sense that it can trigger a very strong reaction from people for the negative connotation that is attached to it. We’re all sensitive to the power and sound of no.

As a child, we’re often censured with the word “No”.

“No sweets for you!” or “No TV for you” or “No more toys for you!”

Hence, the word “No” is associated with rejection and disagreement. We usually use it with the former idea in mind when we disagree with someone’s viewpoints. Rejection in turn is associated with stigma when someone is rejected from the lives of other people. In scenes like this, the rejected are forced away from their community and network of social support. They lose their identity and sense of self and belonging. They’re like ghosts… dead and invisible.

Can you sense the pain that’s associated with the seemingly simple word that is “No”?

Let’s reexamine the case of Dave and Denise. From my observation of the arguing couple, I could see that the Messrs was growing increasingly frustrated not because her husband was attempting to prove her wrong. In fact, 90% of her frustration was borne because her husband was saying she was “wrong” when he was in fact paraphrasing her ideas!

It’s like your colleague stealing a your ideas and then turning around to say that you’re boring and lacking in creativity! It may not be entirely so in the case of D&D, but… you get the picture yea?

Noting the gross miscommunication between the two, and finally having realised that they were creating a circus over two alphabets, I made a suggestion for Dave the “No-man” to consider (notice I’m not saying he’s wrong! *winks*(


Instead of beginning with the word “No”, substitute it with words or phrases such as “Maybe”, “Perhaps”, “Let me try to paraphrase that”.

Keywords such as these are usually safer alternatives. Mainly because they’re hedging words which allow room for flexibility – meaning that they leave NO room for absolute words like NO. It’s harder to prove something that’s absolute then something that can be qualified with reasons.

Paraphrasing will also allow you the opportunity to check if you and your opponent are on the same page and frequency of ideas. If you are, then great! If not, your opponent will explain himself further and you’ll be given another chance to “check” if “you understand him/her correctly”. This act of checking is a sign of respect and shows that you’re actively listening and paying attention to what he/she has to say. This show of respect is more often than not reciprocated too!

Hedging words are great tools to use when you need to clarify ideas, neutralize conflicts and (re)establish rapport. In a nutshell, hedging is a wonderful way for you to avoid and minimise conflicts and costs stemming from miscommunication.

Try it, and let me know it goes!

From Your Communication Coach,

Gary G.


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