Do you ever find yourself being misunderstood?
Most of us experience this from time to time. Whether this is because of you or the world around you isn’t really the issue here …
… however, if you think about it for a second, the only constant in all your failed efforts is … well, you.
But if we get a better understanding of what’s really going on, then you, and I, and basically everyone else can get better at communicating clearly and effectively with others.
Why We Talk To Each Other The Way We Do
I overheard a conversation between two communication professionals (you’ll see why this is funny soon!) the other day. One of them was stressed-out and needed help:
“I’m so overwhelmed; do you think you can step in and help me out with this project?”
“Sure. Only thing is that my calendar is full for the next two weeks, but then after that, I’m wide open.”
“Haha, yeah I hear you. But that’s great, this won’t require any work in the next two weeks at all. I’ll get back to you in a week or two so we can set up some meetings, okay?”
“Sure thing, happy to help and speak later!”
Okay, so what really happened here?
The person looking for help stressed out and is thus only hearing one thing — it’s empty in the other person’s calendar two weeks from now, and that’s when the support is needed. The person offering help, on the other hand, conveys that he or she needs a two weeks heads-up to be able to have time for a meeting.
So, what will probably happen as a result of this conversation?
Chances are that the person seeking help will get back in a week or two asking for a meeting straight away. The person offering to help will then say that he or she is fully booked for the next two weeks now, so a meeting at that time is no longer possible. And then both persons get cranky with each other … *sigh*
Why do things like this happen — and how do YOU avoid it?
The Military “Repeat-My-Instructions” Technique
In the conversation above, both persons make false assumptions. The person seeking help assumes the other person’s calendar will stay empty. The person offering help assumes that he or she is fully understood.
Add a little stress to that mix, and it’s wondrous how we humans EVER succeed in getting our messages across. I learned this myself several years go;
I did my military service in Sweden for 15 months back in 1999/2000. My function included leading a platoon of twenty or so young men and women. We were all nineteen or twenty years old, armed with loaded rifles and equipped with combat gear.
In those types of situations, often extremely cold while operating under distress with not enough food or water, following EXACT orders were extremely important. So there was this rule:
When you give an order, have the soldiers REPEAT it back to you.
Simple as that, right? Well … not really.
However simple I thought my instruction was, people seemed to be hearing the craziest things. Sure, I probably messed up in giving the orders every now and then, but, in any case, it made me think about the power of clarity:
The Science Of Not Communicating Very Well
There’s actually a whole lot of scientific research coming into play in situations like these.
How we act as individuals is a direct result of our perception of reality. Not the reality itself, nota bene, a concept made popular by American intellectual and journalist Walter Lippmann in 1922.
In many ways, Lippmann posed a scary thought; that there are as many perceived realities as there are humans — and all of these perceptions are incomplete by nature. And from this utterly incomplete framework stems all human action …
As a result, people tend to hear what they want to hear. This is also known as cognitive dissonance as explained by social psychologist Leon Festinger in 1956. Our brain is wired to filter out noise, however, the concept of noise varies heavily from individual to individual.
And last but not least, we have the theory of mind, our ability as individuals to place ourselves in someone else’s perceived reality. It’s often hard for human’s to ignore their own perception of reality to be able to foresee (and understand!) the actions taken by others.
So in summary, it’s actually quite amazing that we’re able to understand each other at all, also from a scientific standpoint!
So, should we just give up then?
How To Communicate Effectively With Other People
The takeaway from this post is rather straightforward.
1. Don’t assume things and try to be as clear as you can. A lot of people are afraid of coming across as if they’re trying to dumb things down, but this rarely happens. They rather appreciate your clarity.
2. Have people repeat your instructions back to you. This will give you an idea of whether your message went through the way you intended it to. You can do this via email to, just ask the recipient to summarise their next actions in bullets.
3. Repeat instructions from others back to them. This will give your coworkers a chance to adjust your perceived reality. Most people really appreciate this, especially at the end of meetings.
4. Ignore what YOU know when interpreting others. What you know yourself will most likely only get in the way when interpreting what others say. When listening to another person, try to see the world through their eyes, not your own.
5. Accept the actions of others. This is by far the hardest part. Very few people act randomly. Their actions might seem irrational, but if you were seeing the world they way they do, chances are you would act the same way, too.
In closing, as for communicating strategically, no matter through which media, it all boils down to a simple fact:
If you want to change how people act, you have to change their perceived reality.
To finish off this post in the best and most pretentious way possible — enter Danish existentialist Søren Kierkegaard:
If one is truly to succeed in leading a person to a specific place, one must first and foremost take care to find him where he is and begin there.
This is the secret in the entire art of helping.
Anyone who cannot do this is himself under a delusion if he thinks he is able to help someone else. In order truly to help someone else, I must understand more than he — but certainly first and foremost understand what he understands.
If I do not do that, then my greater understanding does not help him at all. If I nevertheless want to assert my greater understanding, then it is because I am vain or proud, then basically instead of benefiting him I really want to be admired by him.
But all true helping begins with a humbling.
The helper must first humble himself under the person he wants to help and thereby understand that to help is not to dominate but to serve, that to help is a not to be the most dominating but the most patient, that to help is a willingness for the time being to put up with being in the wrong and not understanding what the other understands.