Miscommunication & Misunderstanding:
Two Sides of the Same Coin

11 June 2017

Miscommunication and misunderstanding are two sides of the same coin.

It takes two to Tango, and clear communication is no different.

Miscommunication implies that what was said or written missed the mark regarding the actual audience.

Misunderstanding reflects a disconnect in what or how something was expressed, such that the meaning received differed from what was intended.

Neither side is really to be blamed, provided the matter gets rectified.

Ensuring that the receiving side understands is the responsibility of both parties. The one conveying the new idea or material should ask sufficient follow-up questions to ascertain how it was received. The one listening should be able to express the concepts in their own words before concluding that they understand.

In some instances, even that process breaks down. Restating concepts in one’s own words may accidentally indicate correct delivery, because the particular definition or implied context differs in each person’s mind.

Context is key.

There may be cultural differences even among people who grew up in the same neighbourhood and attended the same schools and religious institutions.

For instance, I was an alien among my peers because for all practical purposes, English was a second language for my parents even though we were all born in the US. Other than classmates who were immigrants themselves or those with one parent that was, I knew of none with a similar family situation. This dynamic contributed to challenges in relating to school friends because by all outward appearances, the context seemed the same but was not.

Finding common context doesn’t require walking in someone’s shoes, but empathy is an effective means to attain this.

Context may be negotiated by asking a few questions or researching in advance. “Know your audience.”

Context may also be agreed upon, like planning to meet someone at a particular time and place.

A specific context can last for the short duration of uttering a single sentence or per code of conduct, remain in effect while in uniform or while on duty such as for civil servants.

Establishing a common context requires relating to one another.

Relating is ultimately what this is all about.

For communicating clearly, an effective speaker or writer would convey the material in terms that are readily accessible to the audience. Sometimes however the audience at hand isn’t the originally intended audience, so adjustments must be made to continue being effective.

Not to be confused with presenting material to provoke or misdirect for affect but even these efforts would be more efficient if tailored to a given crowd.

Our focus here is clear communications– manners of speaking, ways of expressing, means of conveying ideas.

Style and convention become contributing factors, such as the use of jargon as short-hand to save time and explanation. However, it can also be exclusionary by introducing a barrier to those not yet indoctrinated or less versed in the material being discussed.

Companies with internally used acronyms and abbreviations can seem daunting to a newly hired employee. Once beyond the learning curve, this same lingo can be mistaken for a security measure: employees may speak about their work in public spaces with relative comfort that only current and former staff members would understand the substance of what they were discussing (the fallacy of security through obscurity, notwithstanding).

In the end, clear communication ensures all parties understand, but this isn’t the same as agreeing.

For reaching agreement, debate is sometimes necessary which requires critique as part of that process. One technique available to ensure understanding of the other’s position is to first express the other side’s facts or concerns in terms that they would find acceptable. Then and only then would permission be granted for presenting arguments.

In some cases, challengers changed sides revealing that there was prior ignorance now dispelled– i.e., new understanding. Early critics of Bitcoin and Blockchain technique are among notable recent examples, where those with the math skills and cryptographic knowledge endeavouring to demonstrate weakness ultimately proved strength of the systems, becoming vocal advocates.

It is the responsibility of all involved to ensure that there is understanding, else suffer miscommunication/misunderstanding.

Copyright © 2017 Daniel Joseph Pezely
May be licensed via Creative Commons Attribution.