How to avoid misunderstandings

June 6, 2022

How to avoid misunderstandings

Let's begin with a quick exercise: Think of a friend you know deeply and personally. Now think of someone you know by name only, such as the CEO of your local banking institution. Now imagine these two people both said on LinkedIn: "Men and women are different. "What goes through your head? How would you react to the statement coming from your friend vs from the CEO?

I posed this thought exercise in one of my earlier Ko Lab newsletters, after finding out that my social enterprise ColourSpace was nominated as a finalist for an Ethical Enterprise Award. My dilemma at the time was whether or not I should announce this publicly because at that time, I was also the Acting CEO of Leadership Victoria, a highly reputable and well-regarded institution. I was stressed that in making a public announcement, people might perceive me as being flaky or not committed to the organisations I run, or perhaps leveraging my position for personal gain.

At the time, I wrote that:"...much of the discordance lies in my own head, that I should be true to myself and not be beholden to other people's expectations. However, I'm also keenly aware that I don't always get to control that narrative, especially when I'm also ostensibly the public face of two organisations."

In other words, whilst I can be true to my purpose and clear in my intentions, I can't disregard the fact that we live in an information ecosystem where it is easy for other people to misinterpret the things I say, sometimes with significant implications.

"That's not what I meant"

I'm going to go out on a limb and claim that this is a sentiment that literally everyone has expressed, whether in personal or professional situations, online and offline (probably more soon line but we'll get to that in a sec). What's more, I would argue that we've all universally experienced what it means to be misunderstood, as well as misunderstanding someone else.

The Oxford Dictionary defines 'misunderstanding' as a situation in which a comment, an instruction, etc. is not understood correctly but I think there's more nuance to it than that. Firstly, a misunderstanding arises in context of communication, in which an idea or an intent is being conveyed to someone else. Communication is comprised of two things: The message itself, and how the message is conveyed (which includes the context in which it's conveyed).

Or even more simply: The 'what' and the 'how'.

Thus, I believe a misunderstanding is a failure to understand either or both of these aspects.

A misunderstanding of the 'what' typically manifests in a lack of understanding of the concepts, specifics, or definition of what's being said. As a simple example, think of any conversation where you've had a 'lost in translation' moment between American vs British English (or any other languages). As a more complex example, recall any conversation where someone who is a technical expert in their field (i.e. doctors, engineers) gave you a set of complex instructions but you have no idea what they're talking about.

A misunderstanding of the 'how' typically manifests in the emotional and contextual zone, and can be influenced by everything from body language, grammatical style, cultural background, and the communication channel or medium. Think of the last 10 people you engaged with: Are they direct or indirect in the way they communicate? Serious or jovial? Big picture or detail-oriented? Emotional or serious? I believe this is why - in a highly digital landscape - there is a greater degree of emotional and contextual misunderstandings.

So what does it look like when we understand both what and how? I believe this is the zone where we understand true intent.

Proximity to intent

So just for fun, what I've done is mapped 'what' and 'how' to a 2x2 graph.

If we look at these quadrants through the lens of someone receiving a message, these are some of the characteristics to consider:

Surface level proximity

  • This is the zone for the greatest level of misunderstanding. Not only might I misunderstand what is being said, I might also misjudge the tone, and form an opinion based on a misunderstanding on both axis
  • If I don't know the person at all, it can be easy to project my world views or biases on to what they say
  • Similarly, I believe second-hand information / gossip more often than not sits in this zone, where a story is passed on to us by someone else. Not only do I not know what's been originally said, I also don't know what their tone is
  • For example, think of a time when you've heard a story from someone, formed an opinion, but on looking up the source material, you've changed your mind. What's happened here is that you've positioned yourself to be closer to true intent

Proximity to technical intent

  • This is the zone where I understand what's being said, but I don't understand how it's said. For example, if someone texted you: "Hey take it easy" how would you interpret this? Is it a message of rebuke? Or is it a message of care and support?
  • Another example is that of retelling a joke from a standup comedian, which can often be highly contextual to the environment it's delivered in. Trying to retell the same joke in a different environment might come across the crude, insensitive, or callous
  • In a digital world, it's also quite easy to default into this zone, where messages sent via email or text can easily be stripped of emotional intent
  • I believe that when meeting new people or joining a new team for the first time, this is the zone that we largely inhabit. I know what's being said, but I don't yet know how people like to express themselves

Proximity to emotional intent

  • This the zone where I understand how someone says something, even if I don't understand what they're saying
  • The simplest example I can think of is when I visit another country. Even if I don't understand the language, I can still understand what someone means through emotions, tone, gestures, or body language
  • I believe this is also the zone where people forgive each other for faux pas, especially among people who know each other well. It's where sentiments such as: "I know this person, and I know that's not what they mean" might exist

Proximity to true intent

  • And finally, this is the zone where I understand both what someone is saying, and how they say it. I understand what they mean
  • There is little risk of misunderstanding because I understand both the subject matter, and I can read between the lines of what is being said, picking up on nuances that others might not be able to
  • Finally, I believe this is the zone where high functioning teams or groups of people exist. Teams that can work together almost wordlessly because there's a deep understanding of each other's intent. Or if it's a social group, this is like a close group of friends where communication can be free and unfiltered because there's little doubt as to the intent

So far, I've presented these quadrants from the perspective of someone on the receiving end of communications. Thus what this model aims to demonstrate is that in order to minimise misunderstandings, there's a few things I can do:

  1. What can I do to get closer to someone's intent?
  2. Do I understand what is being talking about?
  3. Do I know what their tone is? If not, can I talk to them to find out why?
  4. If I'm receiving second hand information, how can I go to the source?

Conveying intent and avoiding misunderstandings

So how can this tool be used to convey intent and avoid misunderstandings? I think there are two use cases for this.

The first use case is to use this to consider the way I communicate with others. Using this article as an example:

  1. What can I do to convey not just what I'm talking about, but also my tone?
  2. Along the x-axis (the 'what'), am I using words that are clear and easy to understand or am I being verbose and obtuse?
  3. Along the y-axis (the 'how'), am I using words and examples in a way to convey a tone of being open-minded and inquisitive (my intent)?
  4. If not, what else can I do?

The second use case is to consider this from the perspective of the recipient. If I put myself in the shoes of someone who doesn't know me:

  1. Would they know what I'm talking about?
  2. In what context would they be reading my message?
  3. How could they interpret my tone?

In conclusion

I hope the Proximity to Intent model has provided you with a new and different perspective to how we think about misunderstandings, how and why they occur, how to identify them, as well as things we can do to minimise the likelihood of misunderstandings.

If this article resonates with you, you might also be interested in the following articles:

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