Boys talking via cans and string
September 9, 2021

Disentangling misunderstandings in conversations.

Have you ever wondered why a conversation didn’t go as well as you’d hoped? 

Perhaps you feel you were misunderstood? Or the discussion seemed to go down a blind alley, paved with small details, overlooking the substantive point altogether?

Communication is a two-way process, and can be described using some of the language in the classic Shannon and Weaver communication model: encoding, transmitting and decoding.

Stages in communication

A starting point may be that someone has some information or a perspective to share. They need a way of encoding this into a message that can be shared, typically in words.

They need a means of transmitting the message. In a conversation this is normally through speaking, perhaps supported by visual aids of some kind. Or the communication may be in writing or through images.

At the other end, there is a receiver, who needs to decode the message so that it can be understood. In interactive types of communication, such as a conversation, the roles of transmitter and receiver switch frequently. 

Given the stages involved, there are various places in the process where errors or misunderstandings can creep in. Here are some ideas on how to keep communication flowing smoothly.

Clarity of message

When we’re sharing a message, we need to start with clarity about what we want to say. This isn’t necessarily as straightforward as it sounds. For starters, many of us (I include myself) don’t always know exactly what we think, until we speak out. Articulating our thoughts helps us to clarify them, whether out loud, or in writing.

Now, this is great if you are in an environment with somebody who is a really good listener. The main reason why coaching can be so powerful, is that a skilled coach is a trained and experienced listener. In the presence of deep listening, you are more likely to find yourself clarifying your own thoughts and coming up with more subtle distinctions.  But in many communication situations, the quality of listening is not a given. Particularly if you need to share a message that the other person might not want to hear. 

Words as symbols

So, to give yourself the best chance of being understood, you need to take time to clarify what you want to say, and then encode it accurately. Encoding involves a process of translating your thoughts into symbols that other people can interpret. By symbols I’m primarily talking here about words, or words that evoke images. (Of course, images themselves are used in many communication situations such as presentations or social media posts.)

Again, the need to translate your thoughts into symbols applies whether you’re communicating in writing or by speaking the words aloud. And then once you’ve translated your thoughts and feelings into symbols, these then need to be transmitted to the other person, who then has to receive and decode them. 

There’s quite a lot that can go wrong here, even if you are clear about what you’re trying to say. The first is that the coding in terms of words is a complex and transformative process. But it’s not an exact science. Yes, we have commonly agreed definitions of words. But they are still subtly different. Ask two people to describe what they mean by a tree, and you might get two very different answers. Someone might describe an oak tree in the middle of a field. Someone may describe a Christmas tree decked with balls. To get around this, we modify words with adverbs or adjectives. But even these additions don’t necessarily mean the person receives exactly what we intended to communicate. 

Own your experience

If a common noun, such as the word tree, will evoke different images in different people, then it can be even trickier to communicate concepts like fairness or equality. Unless you’re going to have a long philosophical discussion, coming to a shared understanding can be hard to do. 

This is one reason why if you’re communicating around feelings or concerns, it’s important to own your own experience. It’s always valid to claim that this is how you feel, for example:  “this doesn’t feel fair to me”. This gives a perspective and might open up a discussion as to what you mean, in a way that a more accusatory approach (“you’ve treated me unfairly”) might not. 

Interference in transmission

Even if you’ve put care and thought into what you’re ‘transmitting’, there are plenty of places where misunderstandings in conversations can happen from the perspective of the person ‘receiving’. 

It’s not just the other person might interpret words differently. They might not even hear all the words. Or they might scan a written communication rather than reading thoroughly. 

Also, it’s very easy to get distracted by thoughts and feelings triggered by what the other person is saying. This is particularly true if it’s a difficult conversation and there are strong emotions involved. 

There’s plenty of scope for tangled wires within the communication process. Nobody can hope to be an absolutely clear channel for communication. We’re too complex for that. But there’s a lot you can do to ease the flow of information between you.

Tips on how to ease communication

Structure information so that it’s easy to follow and the key points aren’t lost

When you’re the person transmitting a message, think about how you structure what you’re saying:

  • Have you identified the crucial aspect of your message, and emphasised this at the start and end of your communication? 
  • Have you broken the content of your message down into a few key points, and clearly set out these points and why they matter?
  • Is there a flow that people can follow? 

Consider the other person’s knowledge, are you making assumptions?

Have you checked you’re not making assumptions, for example about how much prior knowledge the person has on the subject? An obvious example here is acronyms. They can save time when everybody knows them. Everyone in the UK knows what you mean when you refer to the NHS. But if you’re speaking to someone from another country, would they know that this stands for the National Health Service?

Check understanding; has your message been received as intended?

Have you checked that the other person has understood? This is where you move from speaker to listener. Notice if the other person is responding to what you meant to say, or to another interpretation? Does your body language communicate that you are open to discussion? Are you willing to take responsibility for misunderstandings? Be prepared to use different words, or media such as drawing a diagram, to clarify your points.

Take responsibility for your role in communication

It’s very easy to assume that because we’ve said or written something, we’ve communicated our message. This isn’t always the case. By being aware of the stages of communication we can minimise misunderstandings. And taking responsibility for ensuring our message has been heard and understood gives us the best chance of success.

Receiving a message

And when you are the receiver, also take responsibility for ensuring that you’ve heard and understood what the other person is trying to say.  

Ask questions if you’re not clear. Summarise your understanding and check that it’s accurate. And then when it’s your turn to speak, do your best to communicate using the kind of language and terminology that you believe will resonate with the other person. This is much easier when you’ve taken the time to listen and understand to the best of your ability.

Review and reflect

Communication isn’t always easy. But it’s the key to better relationships in both the professional and personal context. When a conversation hasn’t gone so well, it’s always worth taking a few minutes to reflect on your role in the exchange. What have you learnt that you could do differently next time? How can you communicate so that you are heard and understood?


About the Author

Felicity is a writer, facilitator and thinking partner. She is interested in ways to develop ourselves, and deepen our connection with others. Our self-awareness, personal resilience and communication skills provide the foundation for effective leadership and living in our complex and ever-changing world.

{"email":"Email address invalid","url":"Website address invalid","required":"Required field missing"}