There’s been an age-old argument in the communication field: who’s at fault if a misunderstanding occurs – the Speaker communicating badly, or the Listener misunderstanding? Let’s look at some facts:
1. Speaking is an act of translation: putting into words what’s going on internally (the unspoken feelings, needs, thoughts) to enable others to understand what we wish to share. But the act of choosing the words is largely unconscious and may not render an accurate representation to our Listener.
2. Listeners translate what they hear through a series of unconscious filters (biases, assumptions, triggers, habits, imperfect memory) formed over their lives by their:
- world view
- similar situations
- historic exchanges with the same speaker
- biases on entering the conversation (like sellers listening exclusively for need).
To make things worse, sound enters our ears as electrical and chemical vibrations (Neuroscience calls words ‘puffs of air’) that are turned into signals in our brains and then get matched for commonality with existing circuits that carry ‘similar-enough’ signals. Then our brains translate what’s been said according to our history, leaving us ‘hearing’ some fraction of what was intended.
Not only are we inadvertently listening subjectively (the only way we have of interpreting meaning is via our existing circuits), but because the brain discards unmatching signals without telling us, there’s no way of knowing what parts of what’s been said have been omitted or misconstrued.
So we might hear ABL when our communication partner said ABC! And because our brain only conveys ABL, we have no way of knowing it has discarded D, E, F, etc. and have no option but to believe what we thought we heard is accurate! No wonder we think others aren’t hearing us, or are misunderstanding us purposefully!
3. According to David Bellos in his excellent book Is That a Fish In Your Ear?, no sentence contains all of the information we need to translate it. And this, too, obviously provides a great opportunity for our brains to make stuff up…without telling us.
Obviously this results in impediments to hearing others accurately: even when we want to, even when we’re employing Active Listening, or taking notes, the odds are bad that we will accurately understand what our communication partner intends to tell us and instead hear a message we’ve unintentionally misinterpreted.
From the Speaker’s standpoint, Speakers may not be using the best languaging patterns for our communication partner, and wrongly assume we will be understood.
WHY WE CAN’T UNDERSTAND EACH OTHER
Since communication involves a bewildering set of conscious and unconscious choices, and so much activity is going on automatically in our brains, sharing mutually understood messages becomes dependent upon each communication partner mitigating bias and disengaging from assumptions. Each communication partner, it seems, can take responsibility, albeit in different ways.
While researching my book What? Did you really say what I think I heard? I realized that the responsibility for effective communication seems to be weighted in the court of the Speaker. But given that Listeners are at the effect of their unconscious brains regardless of how carefully a Speaker chooses their words, what must Speakers do to be understood accurately?
It’s an interesting problem: since Listeners believe what they think they hear is accurate, they have no idea what the Speaker intends to convey and there’s no way they can know if what they’ve heard (through the fog of circuits, neural pathways, misunderstandings and misinterpretations) is accurate.
So, to answer my original question, because the Listener has no way of knowing what’s been mistranslated, the Speaker is the one who must notice through the words and verbalization of the Listener’s response, as well as body language where possible, that the Listener has misunderstood, and choose a different way to convey their intent.
If it seems the Listener might not have understood fully, the Speaker can then just say,
“Can you please tell me what you heard so I can say it better in case there’s a misinterpretation? It seems to me you might have misunderstood and I want our communication to be accurate.”
That way you can keep a conversation on track and not assume the person just isn’t listening.
And, if as a Listener you want to make sure you heard and responded accurately, ask:
“I’d like to make sure I heard you accurately. Do you mind telling me exactly what you just heard me say so I can make sure we’re on the same page going forward?”
Using these tactics, there’s a good chance all communication partners will go forward from the same understanding.
Here are the questions we must answer for ourselves in any communication: As Listeners, how can we know if we’re translating accurately? Is it possible to avoid bias? As Speakers, are we using our best language choices?
As you can see above, the odds of communication partners accurately understanding the full extent of intended meaning in conversation is unlikely. The best we can do is figure out together how to manage the communication.