What you mean,
What you think to say,
What you say,
What you want to hear,
What you hear,
What you think you understand,
What you want to understand,
And what do you understand…
There are 9 possibilities that you do not understand!
Perfectly fitting all pieces of the communication mosaic can be very complicated. Sometimes the others misunderstand our words and intentions, sometimes we are doing this mistake.
In any case, misunderstandings are part of the communicative experience and although we strive to be clearer and more precise, there is always a loophole for resignation. That’s why it’s important to understand that we are responsible for what we say, but not of what the others understand.
Do not assume a responsibility that does not belong to you
There are people who are real specialists in finding intentions hidden in the words of the others. These people weave a thread to create a circle of confusion until they end up blaming you things you did not really say, to the point they make you feel bad.
It is crucial that you learn to recognize them because they can drag you into their world by attributing you intentions that are not real and making you assume responsabilities that are not yours.
When you need to communicate an idea, it is important that you convey your message clearly and try to resolve any misunderstanding, but you can’t take responsibility for the interpretations of the others because they can be as diverse as their life experiences, beliefs, expectations and prejudices.
Sometimes people only understand what they want to understand, what fits their world view. In this case, you do not have to let them put on your shoulders their burden of intent because you run the risk of becoming the “bad” of the movie without being so.
These people can also take advantage of you by attributing you intentions you do not really have. In fact, this is a technique that often use vendors when they assume that we are willing to buy even if that is not the case. The result is that we can end up buying or making a big favor to someone just because we are ashamed to rectify and explain that our true intention is different.
For this reason, you must not allow the misconceptions of the others to breach your self-esteem or lead you make decisions that you do not feel comfortable with.
The 3 Main Causes of Wrong Interpretations
1. The illusion of transparency
The illusion of transparency is the tendency to think that the others share our mental state. In practice, we overestimate the points we have in common with others, believing that they share our opinions, intentions, and feelings. This illusion leads us to attribute to the others intentions, beliefs and opinions that are not really theirs, but a projection of ours. But in most cases we do not realize this phenomenon.
An experiment realized at the Stanford University has shown how we overestimate this phenomenon. The psychologists have asked participants to beat on the table the rhythm of two known musical themes: Happy Birthday and the National Anthem. Therefore they had to indicate the chances that the other person would identify the theme.
50% of people believed that a listener could easily identify the song but actually only 2.5% could do it. That’s because we do not realize that although the song is buzzing in our minds, the other person only feels the slight shots on the table.
In other words, we evaluate our position without putting in the place of the other. We think that we are “transparent” and that our interlocutor will easily understand our intentions.
Obviously, the illusion of transparency doubles with communication. On the one hand, it makes sure that we do not express ourselves so clearly as we think, and on the other hand, can make sure that we attribute to others the intentions that actually exist only in our minds.
2. Lazy thought
Another cause of erroneous interpretations is what we might call “lazy thinking”. Basically, those who listen to our message are among two cognitive forces that affect their ability to properly decode our words and intentions.
There are two processing systems. The first system processes the information quickly, intuitively and automatically. According to this system, when we see someone smiling, we simply think that the person is happy. This is a very basic system that uses shortcuts to get quick conclusions about the other person starting from small details, such as facial expressions or body language. In fact, it is the system that allows us to form the first impressions.
The second system processes the information consciously and rationally. This system is responsible for evaluating and updating the first impressions, prejudices and other impulsive thoughts. But this system requires a greater cognitive effort, it is like going back to our steps and sometimes requires that we recognize that we’ve been wrong.
Of course, it is far easier to get carried away by the first impressions that set in motion the second information processing system. That is why people who might be called “lazy thinkers” are more likely to misread the messages of the others by attributing them wrong intentions. Arrogance and rigidity can also lead them to remain in their first impression, thus consolidating misunderstanding.
3. The projection
The projection is a defense mechanism in which we project our unwanted thoughts, feelings or impulses on another person who does not really have these thoughts, feelings or impulses. What is happening is that we are unable to accept that reality, either because it is too painful or because it causes a cognitive dissonance, so we simply project it on the other.
That’s why someone can tell us that we are angry when in fact who is angry is him, but since he does not want to recognize it, he projects that rage on us.
That person can also project on us negative intentions that help him reaffirm his self-image, making it look better and more positive than ours.
In fact, projection is one of the most common causes of misunderstanding in communication, but it is also one of the most difficult to argue, since accepting our arguments would also mean changing something within us. This defense mechanism is usually the result of the lack of self-awareness and personal insecurity. Usually it is found in people who have a rigid thinking and who are unable to accept the emotional or cognitive ambivalence we all have.
Of course, there are also many other causes of misunderstanding. For example, a person may be more susceptible to certain areas, the so-called “sensitive points”. Those with poor self-esteem may also be more likely to interpret the words of the others and those who have a very rigid thought.
Be precise, explain yourself again and if there is no other alternative, let it go
To solve the problem of communication intentions, the most pragmatic thing to do is trying to be as clear and precise as possible. Do not leave anything to chance hoping that your interlocutor will be able to correctly interpret the signals you send, because there are good chances that this will not happen, especially if you do not have a deep bond with that person.
Feeling understood is a human necessity, but we can only assume the responsibility that belongs to us. We can analyze what we did wrong and try to improve it, but what we can’t do is to become the target of the conflicts of the others or of the negative feelings hidden from the interpretive errors of our words.
Kahneman, D. Kahneman, D. (2011) Thinking, Fast and Slow. Nueva York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
Newton, Elizabeth (1990) Overconfidence in the Communication of Intent: Heard and Unheard Melodies. Tesis Doctoral: Universidad de Stanford.