Comments and Adaptive Meaning Making

Making meaning of unwanted comments from others

Could you imagine if we all took the time every day to censor every word that came out of our mouths? Conversations would take forever! We say all sorts of things without thinking that can have neutral, positive, and negative interpretations. We're not trying to be malicious (hopefully!), but sometimes what we say can have an effect on people we are directly talking to or even people overhearing our conversations. It happens to everyone! As the listener in these situations, we try to make sense of statements by using our heuristics (Tversky & Kahneman, 1973), or rules we use to form judgments and make decisions. These heuristics are not always correct - we don't have a computer in front of us with knowledge readily available to fact check or interpret responses.

Your first reaction may depend on several different factors. First, what did your heuristics offer you? Maybe you have heard a statement like this before and it had a negative connotation? You may prescribe this statement a negative connotation. Second, your emotional or physical state may dictate how you interpret the statement. For example, if you see a family member over the holidays whom you haven't seen in a while and they say to you, "You look well," but your current emotional state is sad and anxious, you may interpret that statement negatively. We may say something like, "What do you mean, I look well?!?" When in fact, they may mean, "You look like you are doing well because you are smiling or you are doing well in school... etc." When we are quick to make assumptions based on our heuristics and emotional states, we may not be hearing the whole story.

How do we take a step back and gather all the facts?

Although heuristics and our emotions serve to make our lives easier by taking in information and quickly creating a meaning, it's not always accurate. This is when I like to take a step back and tap iinto self-awareness. This is not an easy skill! Take a pause. Scan your body and notice what your background state is: notice your muscle tension, your temperature, the speed of your thinking, your pace of breathing. Notice the tenor of the thoughts passing through your mind. Are you like, "Wow. I'm in an awful mood. I sound like a jerk." Or "I feel one with the universe, letting things just flow through me." (I personally have never felt quite like that, but it is an aspiration...) After, I like to start being curious about the commenter's intentions. Perhaps my interpretation of the response wasn't correct? For example, to the comment, "You look well," I may take a pause to see how I feel, experience my first reaction, take a breath, and then ask non-judgmentally, "Thanks, tell me more about what you mean." This gives the person an opportunity to explain themselves and gives us the evidence to challenge some of our unhelpful thoughts. The commenter may have been able to say, "You have been smiling all throughout this conversation! You look happy!"

Let's take a look at some comments below and see how they might be interpreted differently depending on how we are feeling.                                                     

Comment Feeling Interpretations
"That's a lot of food on your plate." Negative I'm eating too much!
Positive Yep, I'm hungry. This plate of nourishment will be vitalizing.
"You look well." Negative I gained weight!
I actually look terrible... The person feels uncomfortable telling me to my face.
Positive I am smiling and feeling awesome!
"We're being so bad with all of these French fries!" Negative I am eating food that's not good for me! I am going to break out!
Positive These are some darn good French fries.
"Wow, you're eating again?" Negative Am I eating too much?!
Positive Why, yes, I am. I'm doing a good job of listening to my hunger signals.
"That's an interesting smell." Negative Oh no, do I smell bad??
Positive Ah, yes, that would be my new spiced apple candle.
"That's a weird flavor." Negative They hate my cooking!
Positive I found a recipe I thought we could all use to challenge our taste buds! Not for everyone!
"I've never seen art like that before." Negative They HATE it! They are going to think I'm so weird.
Positive My art is super unique and different from the norm! Stepping outside the box.
"I could never pull off what you are wearing right now." Negative I'm wearing something weird and everyone knows it!
Positive I am such a trendsetter!
"I'm surprised to see you." Negative They didn't actually want me to come.
Positive I used to avoid a lot of social gatherings and they are excited I'm here.


Take a moment and think about the last time you heard a comment and interpreted it negatively. How would you think about it now? Sometimes we don't realize how influential our emotions are on our interpretations. I challenge you to be curious!


by Chantal Gil, PsyD



Tversky, A., & Kahneman, D. (1973). Availability: A heuristic for judging frequency and probability. Cognitive psychology, 5(2), 207-232.