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Lost in Translation: How to Avoid Miscommunication

Did you ever play Telephone as a kid? It’s the game where someone whispers a phrase into the ear of the next person, who whispers it to the next, and so on until the message, completely bungled by this point, gets to the last person. They say it out loud, and everyone laughs at just how far off it was from the original. “I like apples” somehow morphed into “ladybugs and tassels” or some other nonsense.

If only real-life Telephone scenarios were as funny. 

Where miscommunication happens

Humans are inherently social creatures. We exist within networks and communities, and all of our interactions hinge on communication. So much disconnect, tension, and outright conflict stems from things getting lost in translation. In any interaction, there’s what I think I’m saying, what I actually say, and what you think I’m saying. In other words, there are several opportunities for our meaning to get lost in translation. But it’s easy to avoid miscommunication.

That’s not what I meant to say

The gap between what we think we are saying and what we actually say can be surprisingly wide and can happen for a number of reasons. Sometimes, especially within close relationships, we make a thinking error by expecting them to understand – without full explanation – how we feel, what we want, or what we mean. When we fall into this trap, we may not verbally express what we mean…then get upset when the other person just doesn’t get it. 

Another barrier to actually communicating what you need and want has to do with willingness and effectiveness. Are you willing to experience the discomfort that may arise by saying what you need to? Do you worry that the other person will react negatively? Do you feel like a burden? Is it awkward or uncomfortable for you in some way? If these or similar sound familiar, learning how to accept difficult emotions and building the psychological strength to be effective in the face of them is important.

Speaking of effectiveness, that brings us to another barrier in communication: do you have the skills to communicate effectively? What you say and how you say it can dramatically affect how the message lands. For example, “You’re inconsiderate” v. “I would appreciate help with the kids this evening” may both stem from you wanting to communicate frustration to your partner about an unmet need, but the latter is more likely to get you the outcome you’re looking for.

A few quick tips for communicating more effectively:

1. Don’t expect anyone – even those who know you inside and out – to read your mind. Spell it out.

2. Use non-defensive language. This formula is a good cheat sheet for communicating clearly and effectively: I feel _____ when you _____ because _____. I need_____. 

3. Use eye contact and facial expressions to show you are paying attention. This builds trust in your communication partner. 

Be a better listener: Avoid Miscommunication

On the other side of the communication coin, there can be a mismatch between what someone actually says and what we hear them say. More aptly, the problem lies in the way we process and interpret what they say, and thinking errors come into play here, too. We may make assumptions about what they meant or add unintended implications, or we may fill in the blanks based on our own mind’s agenda rather than theirs. Have you ever been a part of a team and the project manager tells you what to do? Team members may feel put off just listening to the request if they make assumptions about what the project manager is implying. But face-to-face active listening and focus on the manager’s verbal cues, tone of voice, or body language may tell a different story. 

In any case, the effect can be destructive if we react to misinformation. Imagine what might ensue if your friend tells you he has to cancel dinner plans but you “hear” he doesn’t want to have dinner with you and you assume that he’s annoyed by you. 

One of the most helpful ways to avoid miscommunication in this translation problem is to strengthen and transform your listening skills. First, adopt the mindset that you are listening to understand, not to respond. That means that your primary objective is to listen to what is actually being said and make sure that you understand the message as intended. You can do this by fact checking. Paraphrase what you understood and ask if that is correct before moving on to your response. That alone can clear up a lot of misunderstandings

Level up your communication skills

Because communication is such an essential part of healthy relationships and healthy relationships are one of the biggest predictors of life satisfaction and wellbeing, our next Quarterly Psych Strength workshop (April 2022) is centered on this topic. We’ll be covering communication styles and ways to use this insider knowledge to avoid miscommunication in your life. You won’t want to miss this impactful event.

“Remember that misuse of language can lead to miscommunication, and that miscommunication leads to everything that has ever happened in the whole of the world.” 
– Joseph Fink