8 Causes of Miscommunication and Misunderstanding

Ever since our ancestors uttered their first grunts, miscommunication has been a part of our daily lives.

A customer misreads a policy; a colleague misinterprets a to-do; a couple clashes over a misunderstanding of who was supposed to pick up the kid.

One would have thought that miscommunication would drop with the advancement of technology. Alas, that hasn't been the case. We're more connected than ever, yet we're not getting closer to mutual understanding.

We don't need more communication, we need better communication.

The first step is understanding where things went wrong. Here are 8 common and preventable causes of miscommunication.

1
Implicit vs explicit

Sometimes we mean exactly what we say. "Hand me a cookie, please." But sometimes our explicit message doesn't fully concur with our intention. "Could you pass me that cookie?" "Yes, I could," my sister replies, as she picks it up and eats it herself.

The iceberg of communication

Simple messages can be stuffed with implicitness. "Enjoy that cookie" could be a neutral message. But I could also say it in a way that makes my sister feel guilty, or makes her wonder whether this particular cookie has a special ingredient she didn't know about.

Miscommunication often stems from a misalignment of explicit and implicit meaning between the sender and receiver. Some people are more straightforward; others expect you to read between the lines.

Phrasing your messages in an explicit manner will prevent miscommunication. This is especially recommended in high-stake circumstances or when you don't know the other person well. If you're dealing with a new customer, for example, you'd better keep things rather explicit.  

There's a tension between politeness and directness here. To make questions or commands more polite, we wrap them in indirectness. "Give me your phone number", turns into, "would you mind giving me your phone number?".

You couldn't skip this process entirely, but being aware of its implications will help. What's more, people tend to speak in increasingly implicit terms as they get to know each other.

2
Written vs verbal

The carrier of the message, or the channel, is another common cause of miscommunication. Verbal channels like phone or voice mail are better carriers for implicit meaning, while written channels like email or live chat are better for explicit communication.

There's an infinite number of ways to pronounce the word "no". In written communication the interpretation is fully left to the receiver, making miscommunication easier.

The major communication channels compared.

The advantages of written communication, then, are its search- and storability. You rely less on the focus and working memory of your listener, as he can simply read back on what's been said.

So writing is prone to implicit, and voice prone to explicit miscommunication.

Emoji are one tool to limit this risk when writing. Emily Triplett Lentz from Help Scout wrote a post about how emoji and exclamation marks can make your emails more friendly.

When speaking, proper communication techniques can also avoid misunderstanding. Sticking to a specific structure, for example, increases processing fluency.

3
Negativity bias

This is our mind's tendency to interpret ambiguity as negative.

When you walk into a dark room, you don't imagine bumping into a pot of gold; you imagine a killer clown waiting for you under the bed. That's why cinematic monsters, like the ones in Stranger Things, are scariest when they remain unseen. No special effects can beat our terrifying imagination.

Similarly, the negativity bias is a major cause of miscommunication. With multiple interpretations possible, we orient towards the most negative. Your boyfriend's 'seen' your last message but hasn't replied yet? Probably he's too busy cheating on you.

Chat window with emoji.

The negativity bias is especially pervasive in written channels because the receiver has to do the implicit interpretation. In his tips on working remotely, which often involves heavy reliance on chat, Gregory Ciotti recommends to always assume miscommunication over malice.

When you're the sender, keep the negativity bias in mind and include a positive emoji in messages that could be interpreted the wrong way.

4
Poor listening skills

In his Ted talk, Julian Treasure argues that we're rapidly losing our listening skills. Our apps have thrown us in a constant state of distraction; our headphones lock us in a private sound bubble.

Indeed, plenty of today's miscommunication can be blamed on the receiver's inability to focus. If you want to sharpen your listening skills, Treasure offers a few exercises:

5
Poor speaking skills

Similarly, oftentimes miscommunication can be blamed on poor speaking skills. Some people express themselves so incoherently that they're near impossible to follow.

One powerful tip is to speak with structure, for example using a what - so what - now what approach. Start talking about the what. Then about why it's relevant. Then what the next steps should be.

That’s Timoor. He’s a big basketball fan like you. Let me introduce you to him.

In another talk, Julian Treasure shares some tips on how to speak so others will want to listen:

Also check out his book, How to be Heard: Secrets for Powerful Speaking and Listening.

6
Misaligned vocabularies

Another common cause of miscommunication. To increase efficiency, people within a close group develop their own ways of speaking–through jargon, acronyms, buzzwords, etc.

Chat with jargon.

'Legalese' is another culprit. It's the formal and technical language that often makes government documents sound overly complex, forcing people into hiring lawyers for their legal issues.

These verbal phenomena aren't problematic as long as you stay within your circle. When interacting with outsiders, however, you'll need to adjust.

7
Tricky words

This cause of miscommunication falls in between speaking and listening. These words are often used incorrectly, or sound so similar to other words that they're misinterpreted.

They're best avoided. When someone else uses them, ask for clarification. Many miscommunications could be avoided if people only had the courage to admit they did not understand.

Some examples:

  • Allusion – illusion
  • Allude – elude
  • Effect – affect
  • Flounder – founder
  • Horde – hoard

8
Mental models

The above causes of miscommunication are about an actual misinterpretation of the explicit/implicit meaning of the message. But a larger type of miscommunication exists – one in which people actually understand the meaning correctly, but still don't reach the same line.

Such misunderstanding derives from differing mental models. A different understanding of what the message means.

It'd be nice if we'd all see the world the same way. But we don't. In What? Did you really say what I think I heard?, Sharon Morgen explains that our brains delete, misconstrue, and misinterpret according to filters–biases, triggers, assumptions, beliefs, habits and mental models.

There's actually an ongoing epistemological debate between intelligent people over whether objective reality even exists. We won't reach a conclusion here, but that fact alone acknowledges the weight of mental models.

A few types of mental models and reinforcing mental biases only add to the miscommunication of our world:

(Sub-)Cultures. Humans create cultures to make sense of reality. Everyone is part of various cultures and subcultures, all influencing the way we look at things and the paradigms we live in.

The world in its diversity.

Someone with a socialist mindset may have a more pessimistic view regarding the intentions of businesses than someone with a belief in the market's invisible hand.

What's more, what sounds nice in one language sounds rude in another. The standard speaking style in Spanish, for example, is more direct than English. "Give me the key" sounds bossy in English without a "please" accompanying it, but in Spanish "dame la llave" is perfectly polite.

  

Confirmation & disconfirmation bias. This bias is responsible for our tendency to only focus on what concurs with our existing worldview.

The internet has made it easier than ever to slip into groupthink. We cherry pick the news articles and online friends that share our opinions. Digital echo chambers provide the space to air your opinions and find instant reinforcement.

  

Story bias. Humans have been telling stories to each other since the invention of the campfire. We're more likely to believe a statement when it's wrapped in a nice, emotion loaded story–especially when it concurs with our worldview.

If you buy into the story that businesses are always out to get you, you'll find plenty of proof in the newspaper. If you believe that the interests of businesses are generally aligned with their happy customers, you'll find plenty of proof for that as well.

In the below podcast, Zeynep Tufekci explains how the algorithms behind our social media platforms lead us to only be confronted with news items that confirm our story.

Both the optimist and the pessimist will be right in some cases. But your story will influence how you interpret reality – for example when receiving a sales pitch.

Déformation Professionnell. Or as Mark Twain put it: "If your only tool is a hammer, all your problems will be nails." Most of us are specialists, with our areas of expertise based on our studies or job description.

Each specialism functions as a lens through which we interpret the world–whether that's economics, sociology, or feminism. That makes it hard to talk about issues from the same perspective.

The man whose whole life is spent in performing a few simple operations (...) generally becomes as stupid and ignorant as it is possible for a human creature to become.

Adam Smith

A hammer and a screwdriver will have a hard time arguing over how to open a wine bottle. For more understanding, we need Swiss army knives.

Backfire effect. This effect –brilliantly illustrated by The Oatmeal– is an extreme form of the confirmation bias. It occurs when evidence that contradicts a person's belief actually makes it stronger. This happens because many of our opinions aren't based on reason, but on emotion.

The fixes to differing mental models are less straightforward, but they can help:

Awareness. When you encounter someone with strongly differing opinions than you, try to objectively uncover the areas in which your mental models differ, and where they overlap.

Don't frame it as a battle. Most discussions spin towards the question of who is right, instead of what's the truth. Reframe the discussion as a mutually benefitting clash of minds that will get both of you closer to the truth.

Talk in terms of the other person. As Olga Khazan from The Atlantic suggests in the below video, we often try to convince people with arguments that appeal to our values, not theirs.

Steel-manning. This communication technique is the opposite of straw-manning, the practice of summarizing the argument of your opponent in a way that makes it look worse. With steel-manning you summarize the other person's argument as favorable as possible – perhaps more favorable than your conversation partner did.

[Steelmanning] makes us better rationalists, better arguers, and better people.

Chana Messinger

Expand your mental models. Charlie Munger, Warren Buffet's business partner, consciously expanded the number of mental models during his lifetime – from accounting, architecture, biology, economics, to philosophy, physics, and more. Expanding your mental models will allow you to reasons about issues from multiple angles.

Mental Models are how Charlie refers to the key ideas in each discipline. Each idea is a concept (or model) about how the world really works that can be used to understand and solve real problems and predict real outcomes.

Andrew McVagh

We can't all be like Charlie. But we can dedicate some time to study different paradigms, to become more like Swiss army knives.

Leave the comfort zone. It doesn't feel nice to encounter information that clashes with your worldview. Feel the urge to reject this cognitive dissonance, accept the discomfort, and move forward.

  

Stop identifying with your ideas. We're inclined to see our ideas as an extension of ourselves. If our ideas are criticized, we defend them with passion. This makes it hard to let go, hard to learn. Detach yourself from your ideas.

Not taking ideas personally is made easier by the meta-belief that holding certain beliefs does not make you a better person.

Peter Boghossian

Give people time. Even if you don't identify with your ideas anymore, others will. So don't expect to change their minds in a day. Let your ideas settle in; in time people will find the logic in your argument.