Automatic Misunderstandings and how to avoid them

There is nothing new about it – people misunderstand each other regularly, we all know it and we all do it. However, recently I have been reminded just how easily we fall into the simplest traps of misunderstandings. So easily that when we realize it afterwards (if we do), we are surprised to the extent we can hardly believe it happened. I think it is exactly this lack of awareness and apparent ease of the whole thing that makes it potentially even more dangerous. The automatism of such misunderstandings in our communication is disturbing.

Image by geri cleveland from Pixabay

The situations that reminded me of our frequent automatic misunderstandings were of the most usual sort. At work, I had a couple of discussions with some colleagues where we were trying to reach an agreement on how to proceed with a project. During the discussion, it seemed we all had different opinions on what was the right next step. What was supposed to be a short catch-up began to extend into a dragging talk where everyone had only one aim in mind – to get their point across. We got absorbed by the details and technicalities of the various parts of the project and deep down probably everyone felt like being involved in a counterproductive waste of their time. Luckily someone snapped out of the automatic (habitual, easy) thinking mode and took a step back to see the bigger picture. Just a few minutes later we happily agreed on the right next step. It turned out we all wanted the same thing but each of us called it differently and we were not ready to try and actively understand the point of view of the other.

In another example from recent days, I was engaged in an intellectually stimulating discussion that hinged heavily on the notion of the “true nature of human beings”. This is a large topic in and of itself, so I will not go into details here, but the point is that all along we understood the term “nature” differently in this context. That changed everything. When we realized this crucial detail, it turned out we could suddenly agree on many things and where we still could not reach an agreement we at least understood each other’s views a lot better. Understanding another is, I think, often more important than agreeing with them. If nothing else, it allows avoiding judgements or even actions based on flawed foundations – misunderstandings.

Like I said – nothing new. Everyone knows such situations and has experienced them. They are, one could say, basic. Yet, the very fact that so many of us still regularly fall into these basic traps of misunderstandings serves as proof that the issue deserves our attention. What can we do to eradicate or, at least, minimize misunderstandings in our communication? The obvious answer seems as basic as the issue itself – listen (or read) actively. The reality is, however, not that simple. It is a skill that needs to be trained and it is becoming increasingly difficult due to the growing complexity of our human civilization (society, economy, politics, scientific and technological advancements etc.). In other words, it is one level of difficulty to learn to understand fellow members of the immediate community you were born into and another to avoid misunderstandings among hundreds or thousands of strangers from across the globe who are all united by a single “project” (for example, working on a cross-border initiative or for a multinational corporation and so on).

The first time I came across the term active listening was during a coaching course. It was also called 360 degrees listening. The idea is that you devote your full attention to the person who is telling you something and you strive to fully understand their point from their perspective. You do not think about what you will say once that person is done talking, you do not contemplate what you might have for dinner while they are speaking and you do not judge what they are saying based on your values. You listen. You ask clarifying questions, you summarize in your own words to make sure you got their point right, you listen and ask again until they tell you “yes, that’s right!” You pay attention to this person and to what they are trying to bring across. Your goal is to understand. Not to assume (which very often is the straight road to automatic misunderstandings) but to understand.

If you have ever tried it, you know how difficult active listening is. It requires you to be fully present in that conversation, to be focused on another person and their message and to be aware of what is going on in the discussion in any given moment. I remember how contradicting it felt to practice the active listening skill during our coaching classes. On one side, it drains your energy and you feel exhausted afterwards. On the other side, it feels incredibly rewarding to realize that you have understood the other person, their perspective is clear to you. In return in most cases, they are willing to continue the discussion with you and do their best to understand your position because they feel you appreciate and respect them enough to invest your energy to see their point of view. Ultimately, active listening requires you to put all your perspectives and unrelated thoughts on hold and see the discussed matter from another’s point of view. You “exit” yourself, take a walk “in another’s shoes”, realize how the world looks from those shoes and return to yourself with a real understanding of another’s perspective. It doesn’t mean you have to agree with that person’s position but you have created a solid foundation to build upon so that any further steps you take are grounded in reality, not in automatic assumptions.

Recently, as part of my preparations for the philosophy course I am taking, I read a very similar description of active listening skill as a habit that one needs to develop in order to gain most of any philosophical study. The same principle applies to active reading and active discussion (and not only in a philosophical context, of course). The latter, active discussion, can be seen in close relation with active listening where you are expected to engage actively both when you listen and when you talk – as two sides of one coin. A little more surprising to me was the notion of active reading. However, this seems unusual only until you consider that reading a book or an article is akin to having a discussion with the author. Of course, this discussion can stretch over space and time but the same principle of active engagement applies – if you want to avoid misunderstanding the author, you need to refrain from any automatic personal assumptions and train yourself in the skill of active reading.

To sum up, automatic misunderstandings happen to all of us because we all have and use our individual assumptions when communicating with others. It doesn’t mean we cannot improve things. We can learn the skills of active listening, reading, discussing. This means to “exit” ourselves, do our best to understand another in the spirit in which they communicate their point to us and “return” to ourselves with a solid foundation for further steps grounded in reality.

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