Communication: Play Ball (1)

There are few languages, if any, where playing ball metaphors are used like in American English. From “Slam Dunk” to “Level the playing field” to “Covering all the bases”… on and on sports references adorn the language.

So let us use some ball playing to discuss not what we communicate but how we communicate.

In tennis, two players are separated by a net. And that is where they are supposed to stay throughout the set. Although my arm has been extended with a couple of feet of racket, I am not supposed to reach into your side of the court to block or hit the ball.

When we have discussions, it is also helpful if I “stay on my side of the net”.

What does that mean?

It means that I don’t attribute motives or make other assumptions about you. If I do, I am aware that they are my stories about your motives and my assumptions – so I check them with you.

In a prior job, I got a good telling down by the company’s COO after having asked a couple of probing questions. The COO assumed I had some information that had not yet been shared, and on learning that I was not trying to be obnoxious, I was just under-informed, his anger dissolved immediately. I am happy to say we had an excellent relationship of mutual respect going forward – they were actually good questions – but on that day I was sure I would be asked to pack up my stuff.

How often have we been in his situation; where we have been upset about our own story of other people’s motives, only to learn that it was a completely wrong story?

If we want to “listen to understand”, it pays hearing what the other person is saying. Could the written word have become so popular over the spoken word because we can go back and read what the other person “was saying”? There is no discussion whether a text says “This won’t work” or “Now you failed again; you can never do anything right”.

If we are talking – speaking – and I tell you that I heard you say “now you failed again, you can never do anything right” when what you did say was “This won’t work”, we both get defensive.  I, because your words triggered some demons from my past – they turned your words into an overarching putdown – and you, because you, rightfully, feel words and motives have been attributed to you that you didn’t say or have.

Perhaps you think that I see our relationship as one where it is likely that you would tell me “now you failed again, you can never do anything right”.

Ouch. Ouch. Ouch.

It would have been much less confrontational if I had said “When you said it wouldn’t work, I felt hopeless, like a failure who can’t do anything right.” That is staying on my side of the net.

If you tell me about an incident and I tell you what happened, what you feel, what you ought to feel, or what you are supposed to do, although I know nothing more of the details than what you just told me, I am not only over the net, I have wandered all the way into your side of the court.

And yet, how often have we said or heard “Oh no, it is not as bad as all that…” in order to comfort someone?

When you are calm and fine, hopefully, you assume that I mean well and that my intention is one of caring. But what when you are not calm?  When I am not calm, my first need is to feel seen and heard – and that is not achieved when you tell me that my feelings are not legitimate; that “it is not as bad as all that”.

The best way may be for you to tell me what you heard me say. Just paraphrase what you heard. If you haven’t been listening so you can do that, how can you understand how I feel? How can you know what happened? How can you even begin to advise me? (And why would I take advice from somebody who doesn’t listen to me??)

As much as you may have been listening; advising me without checking what I have already done to better my situation feels quite a bit condescending. If something is so obvious to you that you can suggest it right away, it could have been obvious to me as well. So please check first whether I want advice. Perhaps I just needed to vent… Perhaps I just needed a hug…

My predicament may remind you of a situation you have been in and you feel the need to share in detail what happened to you. Perhaps you solved your situation and you describe your story to illustrate why this or that solution may work for me as well. Again, let us acknowledge the positive intent – but if my feelings have not been acknowledged first, perhaps I am not able to take in what you bring forth.

We are trying to play tennis here, remember. It is not a fair game if we don’t pay attention to the balls the other player sends to us and just take another one out of our pocket that it is easier for us to play on with.

In a discussion, both of you know what the other person said, but you don’t know what the intent was – only the other person knows the intent. That is the other side of the net. The impact is your side of the net. You are the only person who knows what you felt because of what was said.

The formula for NOT going over the net is “When you said A, I felt B.” Eventually, you can elaborate “because I thought C.” and perhaps follow up with a question.

“Is that what you meant?” is a good one.

Can you recall incidents when somebody gave you unwanted advice? Minimized your feelings? Put words in your mouth or ascribed you motives you never had? Took over the conversation with their own story and forgot about yours?
How did it feel?

Can you recall incidents where you were that somebody?

My father used to ask “Is it more important to be right or that people find you are right?” It took me years to figure out that he talked about having influence. If people don’t want to listen to us, it doesn’t matter if we are the smartest person in the room; that we are right. And for building relationships so people want to listen and – perhaps – be influenced, staying on our own side of the net is an easy-to-understand and very effective method.

As for remembering to stay there, though… I am still a work in progress.


Charlotte Wittenkamp
Charlotte Wittenkamp
Charlotte Wittenkamp is an organizational psychologist who counsels international transfers, immigrants, and foreign students in overcoming culture shock. Originating from Denmark, where she worked in organizational development primarily in the finance industry, Charlotte has lived in California since 1998. Her own experiences relocating lead down a path of research into value systems and communication patterns. She shares this knowledge and experience through speaking and writing and on her website Many of these “learning experiences” along with a context to put them in can be found in her book Building Bridges Across Cultural Differences, Why Don’t I Follow Your Norms?. On the side, she leads a multinational and multigenerational communication training group.

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  1. Finding the right words in some situations isn’t that simple. Communication defects, misunderstandings and unmanaged emotions risk driving away even the most loved ones.
    When we communicate, we transmit emotions and generate them in the other. Being able to communicate with awareness through the right words and in the correct way can make a difference in our life.
    It is said that “in life you never go back even to take a run” and, at times, taking a step back is associated with going back. Yet, to observe things from another perspective, it can be useful to take a step back, because taking a step back can allow you to broaden your vision of things and see what you did not see before. It is a question of perspective. Sometimes, the closer you are, the less you see.
    What can be done is to copy the movement of those who are inside an exhibition. The whole is observed. You get closer to see the details. You take a step or two back to get a global vision. We move a little to the left and then a little to the right.
    Admiring a painting means having the ability to look at it from different points of view.

    • What a rich analogy, Aldo. I totally agree, Monet can only be enjoyed from a distance, and when we are too enmeshed in the situation it is also hard to see “the wood for the trees”.

      The thought your comment brought up was that the key words were “unmanaged emotions”. The problem is not if we share our emotions but if we try to suppress them, don’t acknowledge them, and they seep into the conversation anyway. Pretending to not being angry when we are easily leads to passive aggressive behaviors. But if we can say “that was really hurtful” at least we have stated that a boundary was crossed and self-respect is a necessary ingredient to having a good relationship with anybody.

  2. Charlotte — My variation on this scene is when I hit a ball over the net and someone “playing” on the other side is either really slow to return the ball or doesn’t bother to return it all. I begin to imagine all sorts of scenarios in this situation, and 99% of the time, they’re all negative and self-defeating. The way I have (slowly) begun to break myself of the habit is to draw on my best Byron Katie and silently speak the phrase “Do you know what you’re thinking to be true?” My only honest response has to be, “No, I don’t.” That usually serves to calm me down and either wait for the reply — which inevitably comes and inevitably has nothing to do with any of the scenarios I imagined — or send a brief follow-up communication. Game. Set. Match.

    • Thanks for this reflection, Jeff. It is so human that we instantly go to the worst possible reason – somebody positively ignores us in your case – and challenges our self respect. Your method is excellent, I think I will adopt it.