We’ve all gotten those emails or text messages that we interpret as unprofessional, impolite, or just downright nasty. They make us wince and ask ourselves: Did this person really just write this to me? Who do they think they are? In fact, they make us look around for validation from a friend or a colleague to make sure we’re not off base in how we’re reading them.


We then call over that colleague and proceed to read to them—with the “benefit” of tone inflection, facial expressions, and dramatic pauses—what the other person wrote. At that point, there’s only one way for your colleague to respond to you: Yeah, I guess when you read it THAT way, whoever wrote that message sounds like a horrible human being!


Does this ring a bell? Do you tend to struggle processing a message that you consider nasty? If so, I wonder how many other ways you might read that same message and interpret it differently? Probably at least a couple.


We’re human beings, and we want things to make sense. One of the ways we do that is, when we have an opinion about a person or a subject, we naturally look for evidence to support that opinion. So when reading a written message, if we look for evidence to support our opinion of the author, while it’s a natural, human thing to do, it carries with it the danger of grossly misinterpreting the message that someone else meant to communicate.


But doesn’t the person writing the message bear some responsibility for being clear and unambiguous in the message they’re trying to communicate? Yes, absolutely they do. But as the recipient of the message, you can’t control what the sender is doing—only what you’re doing to interpret it as accurately as you can.


When my friends and colleagues who are prone to dramatic, editorialized interpretations of written messages ask me for my thoughts about a particular message, I always say, Wait, wait, don’t read it to me! I don’t want to be influenced by their interpretation (and their opinion of the author) before I have a chance to read the message myself.


If you’re having trouble interpreting a “nasty” written message from someone with whom you don’t agree or who rubs you the wrong way, consider recruiting “actors” to read the part of the message author. Ask a couple of colleagues to take a crack at reading the message out loud to you, and notice how they sound. Did they emphasize different words than you did when you read it? Did some inflection or pause they used cause you to interpret the message differently? And if it’s a message that you interpreted as especially aggressive or negative, ask your “actors” to read the message in the most positive way possible and hear what that sounds like.


The truth is that, without the author orally delivering the message to you, there’s plenty of room for misinterpretation. As human as it may be to look for evidence that confirms our opinions about the person who wrote the message, try not to fall into that trap. Instead, remain open to the possibility that the person meant to convey something different than what you initially interpreted, and see how that alternate interpretation can help you keep the conversation moving in a productive direction.


Guillermo Villar is principal coach with Cambio Coaching. He helps high-achieving individuals and teams communicate with intention to get the business results they want. If you’re interested in working with Guillermo, sign up for a free meeting to explore how he can help.