Guest Post: Miscommunication and the Usual Error


Today’s guest blogger, Pace, is a communication educator. She and her wife Kyeli started a business called the Usual Error Project to help people build communication skills in relationships. Their first book, The Usual Error, will be published next month, but until then you can read their blog at
When we miscommunicate with our partners, we often feel defensive or angry, because we feel like we’ve done something wrong. But miscommunications happen all the time. In fact, one cause of miscommunication is so common that we call it the usual error. But there is a light at the end of the communication tunnel: when we miscommunicate, we can remember to assume love instead of reacting defensively.
When we feel misunderstood, we often take it personally. We blame ourselves for not communicating clearly enough, or we blame our partner for failing to understand our intent. On the flipside, when we misunderstand our partner, we play the same blame game. But there’s no need to cast blame. It doesn’t need to be a question of which one of us made a mistake in communicating. There is a third alternative: to accept that miscommunication happens. People have different points of view, people have different definitions for the same words, and people have different emotional reactions to the same phrase or concept. People are different, and so we’ll each interpret words in our own unique way.

We make assumptions. We fill in the gaps. I assume that when you say “a few” you mean 3 to 5, but you actually mean about 5 to 8. I assume that when you raise your voice, you’re angry, but actually you’re just excited. Neither way is right and neither way is wrong; they’re simply different. In a committed relationship, I’ll learn and remember a lot of these differences between me and you, but I’ll never learn them all.
I’ll still make assumptions, and when I do, I’ll usually base my assumptions on what I would have done (or felt, or intended) in that situation. If I don’t know your definition for “a few,” I’ll assume you’re using the same definition I’m using. If I don’t know what you mean when you raise your voice, I’ll assume you’re feeling what I would be feeling if I had raised my voice.
This happens so often that we call it the usual error.
The usual error is assuming that other people are just like you. Assuming they would react the same way you would, assuming they have the same biases and prejudices you do, assuming they’ll laugh at the things you find funny, asssuming they have the same baggage and emotional tender spots you do. No matter how much we learn about someone, the usual error will still slip through the cracks sometimes.
And that’s okay. It’s part of being different. It comes with relating to others, real people who aren’t clones of yourself. Everyone makes the usual error all the time — that’s why we call it the usual error. So there’s no need to beat yourself up about it. What matters is how you handle the situation when you do make the usual error, or when you do miscommunicate in any other way.
Remember the third alternative: accept that miscommunication happens. Before getting angry, before starting the blame game, before getting defensive, remember to assume love. Remember that your partner probably didn’t intend to misunderstand you. Remember that they probably didn’t intend to hurt your feelings. Remember that they probably didn’t intend to say something in a way that poked one of your emotional tender spots. They probably intended to communicate openly and honestly, but accidentally made the usual error. It was probably an honest mistake, so you can assume love and work out the misunderstanding calmly instead of getting defensive and escalating it into an argument.

About the author

Patty Newbold

I am a widow who got it right the second time. I have been sharing here since February 14, 2006 what I learned from that experience and from positive psychology, marriage research, and my training as a marriage educator.


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  • Megan, you incredible woman, you! I am honored to receive a comment here from you. You must be exhausted after all your work on the marvelous Tribes Q&A ebook (
    None of us always does it right. Sometimes, our anger or sadness feels so justified we can’t bring ourselves to even consider the possibility that what just happened could be a loving act. Sometimes, we act as if we feel loved when we don’t, and it backfires. But the more often we practice thinking about what could possibly lead a good person who loves us to do whatever just happened, the better we get at spotting real love we might have overlooked.

  • You’d be right about the exhausted part. But I run on fumes, too! VOOM! ;}
    Agreed re: acting as if we feel loved. Just creates more confusion. And you’re really right… it does get easier to assume the best. It just takes a little practice, as you said!

By Patty Newbold

Patty Newbold

I am a widow who got it right the second time. I have been sharing here since February 14, 2006 what I learned from that experience and from positive psychology, marriage research, and my training as a marriage educator.

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