"The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place."
~ George Bernard Shaw

“The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.”
~ George Bernard Shaw

Getting Others to Get It!

I believe that misunderstandings are at the heart of 75- 95% of all conflict. In my work as a psychologist, corporate trainer, and executive coach, I constantly see people believing that they have accurately communicated their thoughts to others and/or accurately understood what others are communicating to them. However, this is often not the case, especially where there are disagreements between the parties.

For example, haven’t we all experienced communicating something to someone and thinking that they understood and agreed, only to find out later that they totally misinterpreted what we were saying? Or, maybe we were the ones thinking that we heard them, only to have them come back later exasperated at us for acting (or not acting) based on what was (from their perspective, at least) a clear communication. Unfortunately, these all too common problems commonly result in dysfunctional decisions being made, or debates about “who’s right,” and interfere with the quality of our relationships and even the quality of our life.

The solution (drawing on the wisdom in George Bernard Shaw’s quote) is to not make the mistake of assuming that accurate communication has taken place just because we have said something to someone, or they have said something to us. This is only half of the process. If being heard and understood is our goal, and/or if it is important to us to accurately hear and understand others, we must take more responsibility for ensuring that the entire process of communication is being undertaken in a way that is congruent with these goals.

In communicating to others, this means checking to see if they did indeed hear and understand us accurately. Instead, I suggest that we frame our checking for understanding in terms of us versus them. In other words, we can say something like, “I have noticed in the past that I haven’t been as clear as I would have liked at times, could you help me out by telling me what you understood me to be saying/asking of you?” Of course, these are my words, and I encourage you to choose ones that sound like you and match your personality. Just make sure that you are completing the process of communication by checking to see if they truly understood what you were wanting them to know.

By the same token, you can improve the quality of communication between you and those talking to you, by letting them know what you heard them saying and asking if you got it right. This “Did I get it right?” question will almost always be perceived by the other person in a positive light because they are invested in your truly understanding what they are saying. The key is to be sure to ask it in a way that reflects your desire to understand them versus criticize their ability to communicate effectively.

Just be sure that you don’t mistake paraphrasing for understanding with parroting back what someone says. If someone tells you they’re feeling angry and frustrated, just saying “I hear that you are feeling angry and frustrated” won’t be seen as supportive. In fact, they may think you have learned some technique and are using it on them. Instead, wait until they have conveyed a more complete thought before you attempt to check for understanding. And even then, try to put what you heard them say in your words, remembering to finish with the question, “Did I get it right?”

One key that should be helpful in this process is to keep in mind that understanding doesn’t necessarily mean agreement. You can understand how someone might be upset if they thought you didn’t care about what they were saying, or thought that you were disrespecting them in some way. It is very possible that you do care, but based on this misunderstanding, you can see how they would be upset. Here you could say something like, “Wow, I can see how that would be upsetting. I’m curious…if I were talking to you in a way that did show I cared, and felt respectful, what would I be doing differently?”

Again, these are my words, and my goal here isn’t to “tell you what to say.” I just want you to see how checking out and then working to understand a person’s perspective (even, and maybe especially when you disagree) can be a critical step to ensuring accurate communication.

Therefore, in the future, I encourage you to complete the entire process of communication by ensuring that it actually did take place by checking out whether what you have said has been accurately heard, and letting others know what you heard them say as well. This will keep you from falling into the trap (what George Bernard Shaw calls the “illusion”) of assuming communication has happened when it hasn’t, and having to come back and fix the problems that misunderstandings can produce.

~ All the best, Dr. Bill