One of my favorite quotable movies of all time is The Princess Bride. There is one scene where the kidnappers (Vizzini, Fezzik, and Inigo Montoya) have just carried Princess Buttercup up the Cliffs of Insanity. They reach the top and cut their rope only to discover that The Man in Black not only didn't fall to his death, but is actually scaling the sheer rock face to reach them. Vizzini and Inigo stare down from atop the cliff. Vizzini shouts his trademark, "Inconceivable!" To which Inigo replies, "You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means."
The same, I believe, can be said of the word "communication." We all use it; we bandy it about as though we understand what it means to communicate with family, friends, co-workers ... but do we really?
In general usage, communicate can mean two slightly different, but very distinct things. In the first sense, you can communicate your thoughts, desires or dreams to someone else. That is the way most of us think about communication--talking with one another about how we feel inside. The second meaning of the word is a little trickier in real life. Merriam-Webster says it means "to transmit information, thought, or feeling so that it is satisfactorily received or understood."
We skip that last part a lot, don't we? I know I do. And it's not just a matter of not being clear in my own speech. I have that problem, too, but more often than not, my breakdown in communication comes from listening poorly. I think I've heard what someone (usually Adam) has said and I respond or act on what I think he meant. But, what happens if that isn't really what he meant? What if, when I understood what he said, I got it mixed up? All of a sudden, I'm starting fires in the microwave.
When I was about 10, we got our first microwave oven. My mom loved the speediness at which she could now cook--potatoes no longer needed an hour to bake, just pop them in the microwave for a few minutes and they're done! Personally, I preferred the chocolate chip bar cookies made from the recipe printed in the manual. In any case, one evening we were sitting down to dinner and my brother got a delivery call (he worked for the local pizza place a few nights a week). He dashed out the door leaving his food untouched. An hour or so later, we got a call that he was on his way home. My mom asked me to reheat his dinner for him in the microwave. I asked how long the potato needed to cook and I set the timer for the 15 minutes I thought she'd told me. About 8 minutes later, my mom glanced from the family room into the kitchen and saw flames shooting out of her new oven.
We were able to put the fire out quickly enough, and after a cleaning, the microwave looked almost as good as new. When my brother got home, we were all scratching our heads trying to figure out why the potato would just burst into flames like that. Mom must have asked me half a dozen times if I'd set the timer properly. I told her I had; I was sure of it. Finally, someone thought to simply ask me how long I'd cooked the potato. "Amy," Mom shouted, when I told her, "it only needed to be in there for three minutes!" Whoops.
The same thing happens, though, in conversation with spouses, parents, children, friends: I think I hear one thing, respond to it, and suddenly a burning argument needs to be resolved. Maybe one of these days, I'll learn to curb my temper and just ask, "Does this mean what I think it means?" before bursting into flames.