The Happiness Connection  

Perils of miscommunicating

One of the most challenging aspects of life is communication.

You think you have expressed your thoughts adequately to be understood, only to find that the person you were communicating with has interpreted your words differently than you intended. This happens with both written and spoken words.

Let me give you an example.

My father can't drive because he cracked his pelvis, so my husband and I are doing the grocery shopping for him and my mom. This sounds like a simple enough task, but because it involves a fair bit of communication, there are unforeseen pitfalls.

My mother tells me what they need, and I pass the relevant information on to my husband who makes a weekly trip to Superstore.

Last weekend, I asked him to buy a specific type of yogurt for my parents. He asked me how many to get and I said, “One of those big ones.”

When I took the groceries to my parents and unpacked the bag, I was surprised to see he had purchased one large tub of yogurt instead of the large package of individual yogurt pots I was expecting.

Not many years ago, this situation would have started one of those exchanges I’m sure you can relate to.

“You said a big one and that’s what I got.”

“But you asked how many, so you should have known a big one meant a large package of individual yogurts.”

“It’s your fault for not being clear.”

“You should have asked if you weren’t clear.”

Have you had similar conversations?

Why do we feel the need to argue and lay blame? Does it matter whose fault it is when wires get crossed in a conversation?

Miscommunication isn’t about being right or wrong, it is about two or more people making different interpretations and assumptions about the words that are exchanged.

Let’s take the yogurt situation as an example.

When my husband asked how many he should get, I assumed he understood that we were talking about the individual pots, because that is what he always buys for himself.

That thought didn’t occur to my husband, instead he assumed that a big one referred to a big container.

There was no right, or wrong, there was only a difference in what we pictured when we talked about a big one of yogurt.

There are over a million English words, so it should come as no surprise to discover that not everyone has the same understanding of what a word means. Culture, environment, and individual experiences all contribute to the meaning we attach to the words we hear.

When I first taught in England and was presented with a student’s work, I replied, “What a neat story.”

The student assumed I was referring to the tidiness of her writing and its layout on the page as that is what neat refers to across the pond. I was using North American slang, so I was referring to how interesting the story was.

Every time you communicate with another person, there is a good chance that miscommunication will happen. Possible reasons for this include:

Inaccurate word choice

We adopt words that we’ve heard being used by others without having an accurate definition of what they mean.

Misaligned vocabularies

Words mean different things depending on your culture and experiences. Mad means crazy in England, and angry in North America.

Personal experiences and assumptions

Your experiences with words affect the connotations you add to them. The first time my husband called me a daft cow, I cried. It sounded like such a rude thing to say, although to the English it is an expression given to a woman who is being silly.

Responsibility for communication doesn’t sit with one person. The speaker shares liability with the listener.

Here are three ways to lessen the chance of words being misinterpreted.

Adopt a feedback loop

When you hear a request, or are given information, repeat back to the speaker what you heard them say. This gives an opportunity for misalignment in meaning to be corrected.

Listen intently and ask questions for clarity

Many of us don’t give speakers our full attention. We multi-task and think we can listen while we are checking our email, or doing some other task. Pay attention and listen with the purpose of understanding. If you aren’t clear about what is being said, ask for clarity.

If someone questions words you thought were very clear, be patient. The thoughts in your head don’t necessarily translate as perfectly for some one else.

Use plain English

When it comes to passing on information or making requests, keep your words simple, and avoid using jargon unless you are confident that everyone understands it. Commonly used words are less likely to be misinterpreted.

Will this be the last time my husband and I run into communication issues? Of course not, but instead of letting these situations escalate into unhappy arguments, we’ve learned to accept them as an occasional byproduct of talking to each other.

Few people choose to be part of a communication meltdown, but everyone can choose how they deal with it when it occurs. Instead of laying blame, accept that it happened and move on. 

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About the Author

Reen Rose is an experienced, informative, and engaging speaker, author, and educator. She has worked for over three decades in the world of education, teaching children and adults in Canada and England.

Research shows that happy people are better leaders, more successful, and healthier than their unhappy counterparts, and yet so many people still believe that happiness is a result of their circumstances.

Happiness is a choice. Reen’s presentations and workshops are designed to help you become robustly happy. This is her term for happiness that can withstand challenge and change.

Reen blends research-based expertise, storytelling, humour, and practical strategies to both inform and inspire. She is a Myers Briggs certified practitioner, a Microsoft Office certified trainer and a qualified and experienced teacher.

Email Reen at [email protected]

Check out her websites at www.ReenRose.com, or www.ModellingHappiness.com

The views expressed are strictly those of the author and not necessarily those of Castanet. Castanet does not warrant the contents.

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