The Pursuit of God

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Improving Your Communication Skills: Understanding Private Dictionaries


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As a human, you speak one or more verbal languages.  Let’s use English as an example.  As an English speaker, there are two kinds of dictionaries which you use to communicate with other English speakers: public and private.  Your public dictionaries are ones which we can all access.  When you come across a new word or phrase and you look up its definition online or in a book, you’re using public dictionaries.  But public dictionaries don’t play a big role in your life.  It’s your private dictionary that you mainly rely on, and this is what makes talking to you such a challenge for other humans.  You see, you’re the only one who can access your private dictionary, because that massive, highly personalized, constantly updated database of words and meanings only exists inside your mind.  And while you’re keeping your dictionary all to yourself, you’re also viewing it as far more trustworthy and accurate than all public dictionaries.  Your private dictionary is the resource you use to interpret the actions, behaviors, mannerisms and expressions of every human you interact with.  It’s your human decoder book, and you’ve been expanding and modifying its entries your entire life.  After all of the work you’ve put into keeping your private dictionary up to date, you’re not always willing to accept the idea that some of your entries are wrong.  In fact, there are certain entries which you are totally unwilling to change, and this can create major conflicts when you’re talking to other people.

Now if we could download the contents of your private dictionary and start comparing its entries with the entries of a public dictionary, we’d find some very surprising differences.  Let’s use Nadine as an example.  In Nadine’s private dictionary, the phrase “it’s fine” has some very interesting definitions attached to it.  Like all private dictionaries, Nadine’s is very detailed and extensive, with words being defined in many specific contexts.  As we browse through Nadine’s lengthy list of interpretations for the phrase “it’s fine” we come across this notation: When used by a man in reference to my cooking, “it’s fine” means “I hate it.”  Hm.  What do you think inspired Nadine to add such a specific entry?  Well, Nadine is divorced, and her first marriage was quite a misery.

Nadine is currently dating a nice man named Jim, and tonight she’s cooking him dinner for the first time.  Suppose Nadine asks Jim how he likes her food and he says “It’s fine”?  How do you think Nadine is going to respond to that?  After getting a glimpse into her private dictionary, we can see that “it’s fine” would really not be a good answer for Jim to use if he wants the evening to go well.  Well, hopefully Jim won’t even consider using this phrase.  Hm.  Just to be safe, let’s take a peek into Jim’s private dictionary and see what kinds of definitions he attaches to this same phrase.

When we look up “it’s fine” in Jim’s private dictionary, we find a long list of entries, just as we did in Nadine’s.  So we quickly scan for any entry that’s referring to food.  Ah, here’s one: When referring to food, “It’s fine” is the same as saying “I like it.”  Uh-oh. As Nadine and Jim sit down to a candlelight dinner, we can see trouble brewing.  After watching Jim sample her cooking, Nadine shyly asks, “Do you like it?”  Jim answers, “It’s fine.”  Yikes.  Nadine suddenly bursts into tears.  Well, we certainly understand why, because we’ve gotten a glimpse into Nadine’s private dictionary.  But Jim hasn’t gotten a glimpse, and he has no idea that Nadine now thinks he hates her food.

So what will Jim do now?  He’s going to turn to his private dictionary for help.  As he sits there staring in confusion at Nadine sobbing into her napkin, his mind flies to the entry for how to interpret a woman suddenly bursting into tears.  Let’s take a quick peek and see how this kind of behavior is interpreted in Jim’s private dictionary.  Here’s a troubling entry: When a woman starts crying for no reason, she’s just looking for attention.  Don’t give any to her, or you’ll end up as miserable as you were with Marsha.  Who’s Marsha?  Well, it turns out that Jim is divorced as well, and his first wife Marsha clearly had a strong influence on how he interprets women crying. This is the way with private dictionaries: their massive database of definitions, interpretations, and advice are all based on our real life experiences with others.  As Jim rolls his eyes and stands up with an irritated look on his face, we can understand why he’s suddenly acting so hostile towards Nadine because we’ve seen how he defines a woman crying.  But Nadine doesn’t know anything about how Jim is interpreting her behavior.  What she sees is that a man who hates her food is suddenly getting up in the middle of a meal.  How is Nadine going to interpret this behavior?  Let’s pull up her private dictionary and turn to the section on interpreting male behavior.  First we come to a lengthy table of contents.  Let’s try the section on adult male peers, then let’s try the subsection called “romantic partners.”  Yikes, here’s a disturbing entry: When a man suddenly stands up at the dinner table with an angry look on his face, it means he’s going to try and hit me, so RUN!

And there goes Nadine, fleeing out of the room, down the hall, and into her bedroom where she slams and locks the door. Wow, this evening has really gone south fast.  What is Jim’s dictionary going to advise him to do now?  When we pull up his database, we find a whole section on female peer behavior, and it looks like Marsha’s name comes up in almost all of the entries.  Clearly Jim’s experience with his first wife inspired him to heavily revise this whole section.  Ah, here’s a relevant entry: When a woman runs into a room and slams the door, she’s being manipulative.  She’s trying to make me feel guilty and she wants me to come grovel with apologies.  DON’T FALL FOR IT.  It’s just a trap.  She won’t ever let you make up with her—she’ll just say a bunch of hurtful things like that witch Marsha.

Yikes.  As we watch Jim grab his coat and storm out of the house, slamming the door behind him, we can certainly understand why he’s so upset after getting a peek at his private dictionary.  But Nadine hasn’t seen what we’ve seen, and she has no clue as to how Jim is interpreting her behavior.

Now this whole situation with Jim and Nadine is really very sorrowful to watch, because they’re both nice people who are strongly attracted to each other.  They’ve both had a lot of pain in life, but they both want to move on and find happiness.  They’re both willing to work at making a relationship thrive, but they need something to work with.  If only they would communicate with each other, these epic misunderstandings could be cleared up.  Jim would never physically strike a woman, and Nadine is not anything like Marsha.  But unless Jim and Nadine start talking to each other, this relationship won’t have a chance.

The critical point we want you to learn from our story about Jim and Nadine is that you must converse if you want a relationship to work. If you aren’t going to talk, you might as well just walk, because the relationship will be doomed to fail.  Because every human on the planet is using a different private dictionary to interpret everyone else, epic misunderstandings are unavoidable.  It is guaranteed that you are going to massively misinterpret other people’s words and actions, and those misinterpretations are going to happen a lot.  In real life, you won’t recognize or have the chance to correct most of the misinterpretations you make when it comes to interpreting the behavior of strangers and acquaintances.  But when it comes to the relationships that you care about—the ones that you want to work—it is vital that you start communicating, and that communication must be verbal.


Now when it comes to verbalizing your feelings, the genders aren’t equally equipped.  Females often have an advantage in this area, with verbal communication flowing more naturally for them than it does for many men.  So for all of you men who find this emphasis on words frustrating, let’s clarify why it is that words are so necessary.

Suppose your buddy Ramsey hears a rumor that the captain of the high school football team spiked his daughter’s drink last night and raped her during a party.  Being the devoted father that he is, Ramsey grabs his hunting rifle, verifies it is loaded, and marches out to blow the punk’s brains out.  Being the devoted friend that you are, you bolt out of the house after Ramsey and try to stop him from making this colossal mistake.  You see, you have information that Ramsey doesn’t have, and you know for a fact that the rumor isn’t true.  Now in real life, are mere actions going to be sufficient in this situation?  If you form a human wall in front of Ramsey and try to stop him from getting into his truck, will that be enough?  No, because Ramsey is in blind rage mode, and he’s going to throw you to the ground and keep on going.  In this volatile situation, you must use words if you’re going to save the day.  There is no set of physical gestures you can use to convey the critical information.  You see, even men who have difficulty articulating their feelings instinctively understand that in certain situations, words become a vital form of communication.  Imagine trying to win a military battle without ever giving your soldiers verbal commands.  Imagine trying to teach someone how to hunt or drive or play a sport without ever using words.  As a man who finds verbal discussion frustrating, you will speak when you feel it’s important to do so.  The key realization you need to make is that conversing with your wife or daughter or girlfriend is as critical as conversing would be in a Ramsey situation.  Without words, there will be major misinterpretations, and those misinterpretations will act like land mines which will blow up in your face when you least expect it.  Conversation isn’t about letting women control you or acknowledging that females are superior in some area.  Conversation is about helping yourself by recognizing the limits God has put on all humans and responding to those limits in wise ways.

Now if we could all read each other’s minds, there wouldn’t be any need to have to explain what we’re thinking.  But if we could read each other’s minds, we’d find relating to each other impossible because we’d know too much about each other.  So there are critical advantages to how God has intentionally isolated us from one another.  The key to good communication is learning to share an appropriate amount of information.  Too much honesty overwhelms and crushes.  But not enough honesty is equally problematic, so we want to stay somewhere in the middle.  We do that by focusing on the right goals.  When you’re talking to another human, the goal is for everyone to be properly understood.  When your wife says, “I’m angry that you didn’t ask me before you accepted that promotion,” that’s the issue you need to focus on.  Why is she angry?  Why does she think you should have talked to her first?  Maybe when she brings this subject up, she’s wearing a shirt that you think she looks ridiculous in.  Your personal view of her shirt falls under the category of information that is better left unshared.  If you decide to start verbalizing every thought that is in your brain at that moment, you’re going to overwhelm her with too much information, hurt her feelings, and probably do some long-term damage.  The same goes for women: your man never needs to know about every thought you have about him.  We humans think a lot of things about each other that are simply mean and inappropriate.  Your guy doesn’t need you dumping all of your carnality onto his head.  He needs you to stay on topic and help him understand how you are interpreting his words and actions.

Now the goal of this post is to make you aware of the reality of private dictionaries.  It’s vital for you to understand that you and the person you’re talking to assign vastly different meanings to many words and actions.  Whenever you find someone reacting to you in a way that confuses or upsets you, and whenever you see someone getting upset by something you do or say, that’s your cue that it’s time to compare definitions.  It’s best to do these comparisons immediately, because the sooner you get clarification, the sooner everyone can calm down.  So now let’s talk about how to do this.


When you’re first learning how to compare definitions, it helps to use some specific wording, such as “When you said _____, I heard you say ____” or “When you did ___, I felt like you were ____”.  To keep these exchanges as productive and painless as possible, be specific. If you use vague language, you’re just going to have to keep repeating and rephrasing what you mean.  Let’s now run through an example to see how this can work.

Everything’s going well on Sam’s date with Kate until he gives her a playful swat on the butt.  Suddenly Kate morphs into an emotional iceberg and Sam can sense that he’s in some kind of trouble.  Here is where Sam needs to immediately address the conflict by prompting Kate to talk about it.  So he asks, “What’s wrong?”  That’s a good start, but Kate is so upset that she can’t talk so she just crosses her arms and starts blinking back tears. Her reaction is demonstrating that there is intense emotion happening, and wherever there is intense emotion, understanding is extra important.  So Sam needs to push this issue, not just let Kate stonewall him with no explanation.  Sam says, “Talk to me, Honey.  What just happened?  Why are you so upset?”

Now if Kate is smart, she will start forcing some words out.  If she just stays in her sullen shutdown, she’s just going to make a bigger mess and push away a guy who really cares about her.  Even though the problem is super obvious to Kate, she needs to realize that it’s not obvious to Sam.  Sam honestly has no idea what has happened to make Kate suddenly plummet into this dark mood, and Sam will never understand if Kate doesn’t verbalize.  It is Kate’s responsibility to give Sam the information he needs to understand what her problem is.  If she withholds that information, then she has no grounds for blaming Sam for not being able to read her mind.

So what exactly is Kate’s problem?  Well, Kate’s father had issues, and when Kate was growing up, her father demonstrated a perverse fixation with her pelvic region.  He would frequently swat her on the butt and stick his hands down her pants without warning.  This behavior made Kate feel intensely gross and violated.  It’s also a subject that she hates to talk about, and had no intention of bringing up with Sam, who she’s only been dating for a matter of months.

Now Kate is correct to not share highly personal information about herself early on in a dating relationship.  But now that Sam has innocently stumbled onto this minefield, she needs to share enough information for him to understand what a serious issue this is for her.  Simply saying, “I don’t like it when you touch me like that,” isn’t going to cut it, because Kate is so upset that she’s going to need some time to calm down.  The intensity of her reaction makes a longer explanation necessary.  If she just offers Sam a vague explanation and then continues to sulk for another hour, he’s going to be at a loss for how to interpret her ongoing mood.  Here is where Kate needs to share her personal interpretation of butt touching with Sam by saying something like this: “When you touch my butt, it makes me feel like you’re going to grope me.  It makes me feel gross.”

Now Sam’s a good man, and he finds this news horrifying.  If Sam wants to be foolish, he’ll get all incensed and say something like, “What?! How can you ever think that about me?!  What’s wrong with you?”  This is how many humans react to definition sharing: they act like it’s a crime for the other person to have a different interpretation of something than they do.  Well, no, it’s not a crime, it’s human.  Your private dictionary is not the right dictionary, it’s just yours.  Someone else’s private dictionary is just as valid as yours is, and when people share their personal interpretations of what you’re doing, they’re not attacking you, they’re giving you critical insights into their world.  The fact that you don’t like how they think isn’t going to change how they think, so instead of rejecting their information, you need to accept it and ask God to help you be wise in your application of it.  Because Sam is a wise man, he is scrambling to keep his own emotions in check as he processes the news that his girlfriend actually considers it a real possibility that he might want to molest her.  This is not an easy thing for Sam to hear, but because he really cares about Kate, he’s not going to try and punish her for the way she thinks.  Instead, he is going to try and clear up the misunderstanding by sharing what his own interpretation of the same behavior is.  Sam says, “Wow, Kate, I’m so sorry.  When I did that, I was actually trying to pay you a compliment.  You’re so sexy and attractive to me.  My dad used to swat my mom on the butt like that when he was complimenting her and she liked it. I didn’t mean to upset you.”

Kate now has a choice to make.  She naturally feels that her interpretation of butt swatting is far more accurate than Sam’s, but if she’s wise, she’s going to ask God to help her deal with this new information. It’s very hard for Kate to imagine any woman liking what Sam did, but Sam has just shared that he comes from a background where a behavior that she detests was actually viewed as a compliment.  It’s very hard for Kate to think around her own churning emotions, but if she’s wise, she’s going to make a serious effort to do so and focus on the fact that her boyfriend’s true intentions were to compliment her, not upset her. She has clearly misinterpreted his motivations in a big way, and she’s been much too hasty to dump him in the same category as her nasty father.  Is she going to be willing to expand her definition of butt swatting in her private dictionary to clarify the difference between what Sam and her father each mean by this action?  Or is she going to reject Sam’s interpretation and insist on blaming him for motivations that he didn’t have?

While Kate is trying to decide what to do, Sam is trying to figure out how she has come to view his behavior in such a terrible light. He cautiously asks, “Was it one of your previous boyfriends who got too hands on with you?  Because I would never hurt you like that.”

It’s quite reasonable and smart of Sam to try to get more information on such a loaded topic, but now Kate has to decide how much she wants to share.  Because her father’s abuse has caused her to be very sensitive about many areas of touch, it would be very helpful to Sam if she at least identified who the original perpetrator was so that he could have some idea of the scope of the trauma.  Since this is a romantic relationship, physical touch is going to continue to come up, and it is vital that the couple be able to discuss these matters together.  If Kate is ever going to get comfortable with physical intimacy, she needs to give her romantic partners a chance to treat her well in that area.  Since Kate really likes Sam and because Sam has built trust with her by the way he’s been treating her so far, she takes a risk and says, “My father used to grope me at random moments.  It made me feel sick.”  Now she’s really upset and frightened by how vulnerable she’s feeling.  But Sam is staying where he is and he is looking at her very sympathetically.

Sam really wants to express his sympathy for Kate in a physical way, but now that she’s raised these red flags, he wants to be very careful not to accidentally imitate her father again.  His instinct is to go over to her and embrace her, but what if she has a negative interpretation of that as well?  Here’s where another definition comparison would be useful, with the verbal comparison being made before the action takes place.  Sam says, “I really want to come over there and hug you to show you how much I care, but I don’t want to upset you more.”

Now that Sam has suggested a behavior and explained his interpretation of that behavior, Kate can avoid misunderstanding him again.  The fact that he is checking with her first and showing concern for her feelings makes her feel safe, so she hurries over to him and cries all over him.  If Kate had refused to communicate earlier, this crying business would have been very distressing and confusing to Sam.  But because Kate has shared enough information to give Sam an understanding about the scope of the problem, he can understand the context of her extreme emotions, and he can understand that she’s not upset with him—she’s upset about the way her father treated her in the past.

In this scenario, Kate and Sam were able to successfully navigate through some very intense emotions and they ended up closer together instead of farther apart.  They didn’t have to talk for hours, and Kate didn’t have to tell Sam her life story.  Each person just had to share enough information to give the other person a chance to properly interpret what was going on.  Kate needed to realize that she was making a mistake to project her father’s perverse motivations onto her boyfriend.  Sam needed to realize that he was not the true cause of Kate’s devastation.  When we inform each other, we give ourselves the chance to bless and support each other.  When we refuse to talk, we only create impassable walls, greater distance, and deeper pain.


So what made Kate react with such intense emotion to Sam’s action?  Well, Kate was associating that particular behavior with some unprocessed trauma from the past.  We haven’t all had a sexually abusive parent, but every human on the planet has their own set of loaded definitions.  The definitions we store in our private dictionaries are shaped by our life experiences.  As we collect new life experiences, our definitions become revised.

Before getting badly scarred on the battlefield, Eric enjoyed being naked with his wife in bed.  But now he can’t see the scars on his body without feeling immense guilt for not pulling his buddy free from a burning tank.  When humans feel intense emotions, they are very prone to projecting those emotions onto others.  To Eric, his physical scars have become a symbol of cowardice, and he is assuming that his wife will view them the same way.  Afraid of being condemned by her, he won’t tell her the full story of what happened on the battlefield, and he won’t get undressed around her.  The longer Eric refuses to communicate, the more strained his marriage becomes and the more isolated and tormented he feels.  If he would use his words to help his wife understand what’s going on, he would give her the opportunity to interpret his experience differently and offer him the support and comfort that he desperately needs.  But if he keeps insisting that his interpretation of what happened is the only valid one, then he’s going to continue to drag himself down.

As aggravating as it can be to keep tripping over differences in perspectives with other humans, the fact that we see things so differently is often the saving grace that God uses to pull us out of pits of despair and self-loathing.  When Eric finally does tell his wife the miserable details of what happened to him, she weighs the facts differently than he does and comes to a much kinder assessment of his behavior.  While all he can see is how he left his comrade to die, his wife sees that pulling his friend out of the flames was a physical impossibility.  Because Eric’s wife has emotional distance from the event, she is able to be more objective, and she points out all of the other ways that Eric has demonstrated courage on the battlefield.  If Eric is willing to let his wife’s interpretation of reality be as valid as his own, he will be able to receive the hope that she’s offering.  If he then asks God for wisdom, God is going to give Eric a third interpretation of his behavior which once again emphasizes hope.  So, you see, different doesn’t mean bad.  Often it is someone else’s radically different take on a situation that helps us see how flawed our own interpretation is.


Let’s review.  Every human on the planet is walking around with their own private dictionary—a mental database of definitions which they use to interpret the words and actions of others.  Since we can’t access each other’s dictionaries, we are guaranteed to misunderstand each other quite a bit.  If we don’t clear up misunderstandings with the people we care about, it will be impossible for us to form functional relationships with them.  We must use words to fix misunderstandings—just using actions won’t be enough.

There are two key steps to clearing up misunderstandings in relationships.  The first step is to compare definitions.  This is when each person takes turns sharing what their personal interpretation of a specific word or action is.  The second step is to be willing to revise our dictionaries based on the information we’re being given.  We need to realize that another person’s interpretation is as valid as our own, and we need to be willing to accept what they’re sharing about their own point of view.

A refusal to talk and a refusal to listen are two very common reasons that relationships fail.  As someone who wants to improve certain relationships in your life, ask God to help you improve the way you are communicating with those people.  Ask Him to help you identify and revise any problematic definitions that you’re currently holding on to.

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