Misunderstood by Stephan Gombis LCPC

How Stress, Blame and a Lack of Curiosity Prevent you from being Known Part 1 & 2

Part 1: Introduction

A few years back someone sent me a YouTube link of a German commercial. That commercial went like this:

A rookie German coast guard was left alone to monitor incoming calls of ships that might be in trouble and in need of rescue. About ten seconds into the commercial a ship captain called into the German coast guard, but in English saying, “Mayday, mayday.  We’re sinking, we’re sinking.”

The rookie German-speaking coast guard feeling a little frazzled cautiously replied, “This is the German coast guard. But it sounded more like: “Zis is zee German coast guard.”

The scared English-speaking captain repeated, “We’re sinking, we're sinking.” To which the rookie coast guard now confidently replied, “What are you sinking (thinking) about?”

The ad was selling English-education services, but it’s a perfect example of what a misunderstanding can look like and how easily it can happen. Of course misunderstandings aren’t always this funny. Sometimes it’s no laughing matter. But funny or serious, I find that there are three reasons why misunderstandings occur. And those three reasons are:



3-A lack of curiosity 

After 11 years as a marriage therapist, and 9 years of being married, I’ve come to realize that being understood is at the heart of every matter we can argue about. So I put together this 5 part article series (that will be emailed out over the next 5 days) to help you discover how stress, blame and a lack of curiosity get in the way of being understood.

The first barrier we will begin with is stress.

Part 2: Stress

Imagine you are looking forward to an evening spent hanging out with a close friend. Then, at the last minute, your friend cancels. You’re disappointed, but more than that, you’re frustrated: this is the third time she’s canceled on you in as many weeks.

This frustration causes stress.  You know you need to discuss your frustrations with your friend, but  even thinking about talking to that friend can be stressful too.

Relationships cannot thrive when issues are ignored. If we can voice our concern without attacking, defending or withdrawing, our relationship can likely be restored and even improved. 

So you’ve heard of stress; and being human you’ve most likely experienced it too (maybe even on a daily basis). But what you might not know is how stress contributes to misunderstandings. 

What is Stress?

The definition of stress is, “A state of mental or emotional strain or tension resulting from adverse or demanding circumstances,” (Oxford Dictionary). Stress comes from the Latin word “Strictus” meaning, “drawn tight.” In French the word for stress is “Estresse” meaning “narrowness” or “oppression.” All pretty good descriptions, don’t you think? 

I find it’s helpful to look at how stress is described across the language spectrum, as it fills in the picture of what stress feels like. As you can imagine, if you’re feeling, “Strain, tension, tight, narrowness or oppression," misunderstanding might be close behind.  That would make sense wouldn’t it?

How stress prevents us from being understood

You can’t be both narrow and open-minded. You can’t be both tense and free to explore. And it’s tough to feel oppressed and still try to listen. Without listening we have no ability to understand or comprehend our partner. Stress restricts our natural ability to listen because the body releases stress hormones that trigger a sequence of reactions like the list below:

1-Lose periphery vision and into tunnel vision

2-Lowered ability to think logically

3-Less mental flexibility

4-Enter into fight or flight mode

5-Cold hands/feet as blood flow contracts and concentrates in vital organs like the heart and lungs

Now imagine you’ve been frustrated with your partner’s approach to parenting, and a challenging situation with your six year-old has sparked yet another disagreement with your husband. As the conversation intensifies, you begin to become annoyed that your partner doesn’t see how right you are. And at the same time, you start to ask the question, “What am I doing with this guy?” He keeps talking, but it all sounds like a huge waste of words. At the same time, you’ve overlooked that fact that he apologized three times, “saying it wasn’t sincere enough”. Guess what… Your stress is fueling the misunderstanding and preventing you from being understood. 

Are you starting to see how stress creates a likely scenario for misunderstandings to flourish?

When you’re focusing all your energy on surviving the present moment; taking the time to explore another person’s perspective is as likely as finding the proverbial needle in a haystack.

But can stress ever lead to understanding?

It sure can. It’s true that stress and stress hormones can leave our minds less flexible, but stress in the right dosage can be the trigger that prompts us to lean into our fears and comprehend what’s actually happening.

You can leverage stress to be more mindful, and to create greater understanding. One way to do this is  to lower your stress hormones into the optimal zone through a method called Pulmonary Muscle Relaxation. It’s easy to do while sitting or lying down. There are three main steps to Pulmonary Muscle Relaxation and they are:

1-Contract one muscle group at a time (I recommend starting with your hands and then working your way up to your head and then down to your feet), while at the same time taking a deep (Yawn-style breath in).

2-Hold the contracted muscle group and your breath for 7-10 counts.

3-Release your muscles and slowly blow out the air as you bring your stomach muscles in

That’s it! This exercise is great for you to do when you’re feeling a discussion is going nowhere and you’re becoming less and less patient. Take that signal as a warning that you need to lower your stress hormones or this discussion is going to turn into a fight.       

Let’s review what we covered in this post shall we? 


1-Stress is narrowness, oppression, or tightness

2-Stress shifts our body/mind resources to be narrowly focused on survival rather than conversation

3. When we notice our stress levels rising, we can work to actively release stress in order to create a better environment for communication.

In my next blog post, we will be addressing Blame and how it can cause misunderstandings to happen.