Magna res est vocis et silentii temperamentum --"The great thing is to know when to speak and when to keep quiet"
Although it's an odd memory the "lesson" I learned from a guy named Patrick in college has remained with me. He was an interesting guy...the first person I really ever hung out with who was into recreational drugs (he often tried things that he didn't even know the name for). I learned how a water bong worked and how people decided what to purchase from their suppliers. Important learning for a naive college freshman who had traveled the world but knew little about this side of life.
But the lesson I learned had nothing to do with drug use or naiveté. Our conversations helped me develop my concept of communication, that I believe to this day. You see, Patrick and I were completely different. We both spoke English as a first language, but the way that we spoke and the things we chose to say were completely different. I don't know how to explain this and I no longer can quote things he said, but I know that 50% of the time I didn't have a clue what he was saying. He would say the words, I would hear them and then they translated to no recognizable concept in my head, or would translate to something completely wrong. Simirla to thsoe sutdys taht say you cuodl raed dfifernet tihgns even wehn spllenig is worng-- I realized that my brain pieces together statements based on probability. That the words that I hear accurately are probably only 70% intact, and my brain interprets the rest to calculate meaning. So I might hear "I-- r---ee -ite to c-d new bu- I jus- ca-d" and even with misheard letters I'd interpret "I'd really like to come now but just can't" ...but with people like Patrick I might be interpreting incorrectly. He might have said "I'm rolling right now to cut blunts at my joint, ciao"...And my brain would take the syncopation of the phrases, the letters and sounds of the words and try to make a sensible sentence...which was almost always wrong. His syncopation was different, his wording was different, the things he said were different and while everyone else could understand him I'd have him repeat the same phrase 3 times and still not understand. We were on different wavelengths.
My lesson in communication: that we actually hear very little and interpret a lot has served me well. It has helped me in sales--learning to articulate, re-state, re-phrase and use visual aids. It has helped me speak with people from other cultures and with different language backgrounds with shorter phrasing and easier words. It has helped me avoid frustration over things that I know I simply MUST be hearing/understanding wrong.
In general: I've applied this lesson to other areas of life as well and realized that what we see isn't always what we think we see and what we understand of the world has so often been skewed by our own perspectives and understandings that we should reserve judgment. I often try to think of other possibilities for why someone might be saying or doing something that is different or unwanted.
(This post was written almost exactly a year ago (1/22/09) and I'm finally posting it.--with a few additions/edits)