Understanding is shared meaning. Misunderstanding results from interaction between individuals with differing worldviews. A worldview is a person’s perspective, based on their experience in the world: the things they see, hear, and otherwise take in from their senses, and their subsequent processing of associations and relationships between those things which they experience. With so many different ways of thinking and so many different ways to communicate and interpret an idea, miscommunication happens frequently, threatening to derail a conversation and obliterate mutual understanding. Luckily, there are things anyone can do to better understand how and why misunderstanding occurs, and to work toward a common meaning.

Identify misunderstandings early, before they go too far.

The further out in an interaction a misunderstanding goes, the greater affect it can have on the result of the situation. Once the understanding of information in a conversation is no longer shared, misunderstanding begins. Neither person in the conversation may know that the misunderstanding has occurred, and the more the conversation moves ahead, the wider the gap grows between the understanding of the two people.

When identifying misunderstandings, time is of the essence. The goal is to prevent that gap in understanding from growing too wide. The wider it grows, the more difficult it will be to bridge. Therefore, the sooner you can identify that a miscommunication has occurred, the better.

Work quickly to clear up any misunderstanding.

If you suddenly realize your understanding of the conversation is different from that of the other person, stop what you’re doing, and start asking questions. Look backwards in the conversation and try to figure out where the miscommunication occurred so you and your conversation partner can return to the same page.

When clearing up a misunderstanding, you’re striving to restore the shared meaning. Once you and your conversation partner return to a mutual understanding, the conversation can move forward.

Focus on the information that has been communicated.

Think about the brain like a computer, taking in and spitting out bits of information. Misunderstandings and glitches occur frequently, because there are a lot of different operating systems in the world, and compatibility issues abound. Likewise, different individuals have different brains that operate differently from yours.

There are a few different types of information that are helpful for a shared understanding and clear communication. This information might be considered background information, but it is crucial to guide your listener toward sharing your views on the subject at hand. This information is easy to provide and without it, your listener could be in the dark.

The right information. In any conversation, there are certain expectations. The person doing the talking expects the listener to understand the message, taking in new information and incorporating it with what they already know. That being said, when you’re doing the talking, your expectations of the listener should be based on what you know that they know, and not on what you think they know.

All relevant information should be presented in order for your listener to get the full picture. Try not to confuse the situation by distracting your listeners with extra, unneeded information.

Information related to time. When discussing actions and events, orient the listener to when the event occurred or may occur. Use dates and times, with the most specific language possible. If something must happen by the end of the work week, saying this Friday by 5pm is more specific than saying by the end of the week. Be clear to your listener about when the event:

  • Took place (perfect),
  • Has taken place (past perfect),
  • Was taking place (imperfect),
  • Would have taken place (conditional perfect),
  • Takes place (present),
  • Is taking place (present progressive),
  • Will take place (future),
  • Will have taken place (future perfect), or
  • Would take place (future conditional)

As you can see in the list above, the verb tense is the best indicator of the when. If you’re asking for something, be clear about the deadline. When you talk about events or things that happened, choose your verb tense carefully. Different situations call for different levels of specificity other than the general past-present-future tenses.

Information about the people involved. This could be as specific as individuals mentioned by name and groups that people are in, or as vague as a number or other measurement of people (i.e., one, a couple, a few, several, many, etc.). It is never safe to assume that everyone in the room knows what you know, so sometimes, stating what you believe to be the obvious may actually be quite informative to others. The benefit of being clear about who is involved and who knows what is that if at some point in the future your listener needs to communicate information to others, they’ll have a better grasp on knowing what the other person knows.

Information about the direction of the action. Every action has a direction. When a report is filed, there is a person doing the filing, and the report is the object of that action. When a phone call is made, there is a person making the call and a person receiving the call. This information ties in with the people involved. When two people or groups of people are involved in the action, like in a phone call, then things can get confusing. Be clear about who initiates the action and who else is involved, and make sure those people are aware of their roles.

There is a purpose behind every communication. If you can make your listener understand why you are talking with them then they can be ready to understand the content of your message. Many people, especially those in positions of power, fall into the habit of explaining what they want others to do, without explaining the why behind them. If you are on the receiving end of these orders, it can get tiresome rather quickly.  When your listener understands the reason behind your conversation – that is, why you are asking them to do something, or what you are hoping to get out of the conversation and how it relates to them – then they feel united with you by a common purpose. This can increase their motivation to work with you and when that happens, things get done.

Like many other mishaps in life, the best way to prevent miscommunication is to be aware of the potential for it to happen, and to prepared when it does occur. Learn to troubleshoot misunderstandings the moment they happen by analyzing the information presented and thinking about who knows what, so you can provide the missing information, bridge the gap in understanding, and clarify the confusion. The result is better communication, and everyone is on the same page.