If we’re just souls whose intentions are good, why do we so often fail at getting our message across? Reasons for miscommunication vary from interaction to interaction, from culture to culture, and from person to person. Still, bearing the abundance of causes in mind, I’d like to briefly discuss four that are closest to my experience.
We misunderstand because we want to be right.
We often enter conversations equipped with prejudice, bias and our lovely misconceptions. Opening to a genuine interaction often means changing our mind about the subject of our talk or – whether you want it or not – about our interlocutor. It often hurts to admit we are wrong. Nobody likes that, so just to be on the safe side, we try to align our interpretations with some already existing beliefs. In other words, we anticipate confirmation rather than curiously open up to honest communication. This only worsens when stakes are high and the topic is sensitive. Think of how politicians discuss in TV shows these days.
We misunderstand because we assume sameness of experience.
Against social logic, we tend to presume that all people come from similar cultural and religious backgrounds, have the same sensitivity, reason just like us and generally should be our copies. Spoiler alert: They are not! They should not! Sometimes it pays off to spend a while customizing the message to the needs of our audience or say something twice rather than cut the long story short just to tick a task off.
We misunderstand because we put too much trust in deictic expressions.
Me and my colleague were exchanging emails with some attachment that needed corrections. At some point Gosia asked: “Is it ok now?”. I introduced some changes and replied: „Now it should be ok”. For her, however, NOW referred to the time from before my corrections and she sent forward the unfinished version. My bad of course! This situation taught me to be careful with words like now, there, that, etc. It’s sometimes safer to specify how recent the nowis and write „See the file after my corrections” rather than „See the file now”.
All of us should learn it. My mum often comes over to share news: “Do you remember that guy who’s married the blonde who dropped out of your school in 1997? He died last week”. Not exactly clear, is it?
We misunderstand because we are lazy.
„Could you explain this?”, “Unclear!”, “Don’t know what you mean”, “?????”, “WTF?” or the onomatopoeic „Huh?”. You’ve seen these, haven’t you? When messages are unclear, we grow concise and passive. Our partners may not know which part of the message we find obscure and how she could elaborate on it so that we grasp the meaning. We pass the buck rather than clarify anything. Instead, we could make a positive effort. Unclear? Should I explain? It’s simple: what we need is sharper focus, clearer detail, and concrete logic. Asking specific questions saves time and reduces risk (of yet another unproductive email, yet another futile call).
While we can’t avoid misunderstandings, I strongly believe we can reduce their number. If we state details explicitly, listen carefully, demonstrate empathy and stop believing in the infallibility of our own ideas, we should enjoy a noticeable change. What do you think? Shall we try and improve a tiny bit?
At Language Extreme we have misunderstood a lot. Enough to start thinking harder and getting better.