How to Make Sure People Understand You

“I never said that!”

“That’s not what I meant!”

“You’re taking me the wrong way.”

A man shows up at the emergency room: nauseous, vomiting, heart racing. When the nurse asks what's wrong, he says it might be a bad reaction to the nicotine patch he is using to quit smoking. He takes off his shirt, and the nurse sees ten or more nicotine patches all over his torso. Asked why he had so many patches on, he said that the doctor told him to put the patch on a different spot every day. So he just kept applying patches to a different part of his body every day. Nobody said anything about taking off the patch from the day before. How was he supposed to know?

We Misunderstand What it Means to be Misunderstood

We have all been misunderstood. It's the simplest kind of communication breakdown. It puzzles us. People say they want to learn to express themselves more clearly so that they won't be misunderstood. When we are misunderstood, we think it is because we chose the wrong words. We didn't convey our ideas properly. Or we blame the other person. We expressed ourselves perfectly clearly, but they misinterpreted us. They got the wrong idea out of what we said.

In the next post I will try to shed some light on this most basic function of communication. Here I'll give you a preview of the conclusion, along with some advice you can put to work immediately.

Communication is a form of problem solving or detective work, driven by inference, and reliant on a shared body of common knowledge. It's not about putting our ideas into words and having other people decode our words and extract our ideas. It's about saying and doing things in the world so that other people, drawing on mutual knowledge about you, the context, language, and how the world works, can make accurate inferences about your beliefs, emotions, attitudes, plans, goals, and intentions.  When communication breaks down, it is a breakdown in this inferential problem solving process, not a breakdown in encoding or decoding. Avoiding misunderstanding means supporting this inferential process, or, when possible, minimizing the need for inference by being explicit.

The next time you feel misunderstood, keep these ideas in mind:

  1. Is there enough common ground to support accurate inference? Accurate inference requires mutual knowledge, i.e., a set of facts that we share in common. We make assumptions about what other people know and what they know we know, and what they know we know they know, etc. These assumptions are often wrong. When the doctor tells the patient to put the patch on a different place every day, she assumes the patient knows to take yesterday's patch off. Dangerous assumption. To avoid misunderstanding, first check your assumptions about mutual knowledge, and where it's lacking, do the work needed to fill in the gaps.
  2. Does the other person know you well enough to know when you are not speaking literally? Most of what we communicate, we communicate indirectly, by saying one thing and meaning much more. This is efficient and can be effective when people know you well enough to know when you are not speaking literally and share enough background knowledge with you to make the right inferences. When people do not know you well, they will be unsure when to take you literally and when to use inference to go beyond what you said to get at what you really meant. Avoid irony, sarcasm, and other forms of indirect, non-literal speech when speaking to people who may not know you well enough not to take you literally.
  3. When all else fails, or when it is critically important to avoid misunderstanding, be direct. Minimize the need for inference. State explicitly those things which are normally only implied indirectly: beliefs, emotions, attitudes, plans, goals, and intentions. This is not a completely foolproof strategy, because you can never be completely explicit, and the other person is always free to make inferences even when you try to discourage them. They can accuse you of being explicitly but dishonest. They can even make inferences about what you didn't say. Everything you do and don't do, say and don't say, is evidence is this endless game of Clue. Everything is grist for the inferential mill. But with people who are inclined to be cooperative and to operate in good faith, an explicit statement of our plans, goals, etc., along with an effort to articulate key assumptions and background knowledge, is often the best antidote against misunderstanding.
  4. Know thyself. To be explicit about your inner mental states (your beliefs, emotions, plans, goals, etc.), you must know them yourself. This is much harder than it seems. Much of the difficulty in communication comes from lack of clarity about our own emotions and goals (and other mental states as well). Have you ever noticed how the best communicators also seem to be some of the most put together, psychologically healthy people you know? This is not a coincidence. To achieve your goals, you must know them with clarity. To express your emotions, you must know what you are feeling and also how those feelings relate to your interpretations of the world around you. You cannot be a complete emotional and psychological train wreck, out of touch with your own thoughts and feelings, confused about your own goals, and also be an effective communicator. It does not work. It follows that improving your communication skills requires a more general effort to improve your psychological health, your self-knowledge, and your emotional awareness. This can be achieved through introspection, meditation, therapy, immersion in literature, drama, poetry, and music, reading self-help, and sometimes just through growing older and the school of hard knocks. But I know of no shortcut.  To be a great communicator requires character virtues of equanimity, calmness, composure, and temperance. These qualities not only involve the self-knowledge that is critical to success but also the ability to avoid the adrenalin surges that so often rob us of our full faculties just when we need them most. I have learned these lessons the hard way.

So that's the condensed version of what to do to avoid misunderstanding. If you want to learn more, read the next post.

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Leave me a comment below and let me know what you think. Does this make sense to you? Give me your best examples of being misunderstood.