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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? Your team members may feel put off just listening to the request, but because of face-to-face active listening, the PM’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 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
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Blogs

Connecting the Dots: Interpreting Our Experience

Just as everyone breathed a sigh of good riddance to the past year, 2021 made a dramatic entrance, at least in the U.S., when supporters of President Trump stormed the capitol on Wednesday, adding yet another entry to the List of Unprecedented Events.

Whether we’re talking about disturbing global events or the individual happenings of our daily lives, our minds work hard to interpret our experience and understand our world. They take in tons of bits of data, process that information, and, ultimately, make sense out of it. They do this by filling in gaps to create a cohesive narrative.

Our minds want the world to make sense, so they construct these narratives, or stories, to explain the whys, make meaning, figure out implications, and find some predictability. I call it connecting the dots.

Connecting the Dots

Look at these dots below. How would you connect them?

Great! Now can you find another way to connect them?

Perhaps you automatically saw a house, a star, or a zig zag. Which one is right? How difficult was it for you to come up with some alternatives? 

The Point

These dots represent facts – as close to objective things as we can get – which your mind then links together in a way that helps you understand what is or has happened. Without connecting the dots, we’d feel completely lost!

The issue, though, is that the way we connect dots depends a lot more on our histories, our belief systems, and our subconscious programming than on some objective truth. That’s why two people, even two well-meaning and reasonably bright people, can have very different takes on the same scenario.

While there may not be a right or wrong way to connect the dots, there are certainly different ways. And, depending on how you connect those dots, you see a very different picture…and then you operate in the world as though that picture is an absolutely accurate representation of reality.

What if – just what if – our minds are connecting dots in the wrong way? Or, if not wrong, an unhelpful way? What if there’s a better way to interpret our experiences? What if we struggle to interpret our experience?

And, what if there are a lot more dots that we just can’t quite see? Wouldn’t that make a big difference in the picture? But, because we don’t know what we don’t know, our minds just fill in the narrative despite the missing info.

The stories we tell ourselves (or more aptly, the stories our minds tell us) become our reality. We accept them as truth and weight them like facts, often not realizing that they can be edited, revised, altered, or deleted all together.

A Solution 

Our minds are going to continue to connect dots to interpret our experience, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Knowing this, though, means that you can make your mind do some work for you, rather than accepting its first draft of the story, especially if that draft isn’t helpful for you. Ask yourself these questions:

  • What story is my mind telling me?
  • What dots is it trying to connect?
  • Is it possible that I’m missing some important information, not seeing all of the dots?
  • What’s another way to connect the dots? Another explanation? Another perspective?
  • Which version is more helpful to me?

This practice of becoming aware of the narratives and working on revising them can have a huge impact! If you’re interested in learning more about how your mind works and how those inner workings profoundly impact your life experience, you may like our ASCEND program. Module 2 is all about your mind…and tools for making it work for you.

But for now, work on being aware that the narratives exist. Notice how yours influence you, and strive to connect dots in more useful ways.

“The world you’re actually in may not be harsh. But the world your mind puts you in can be harsh as heck.”
– Dr. Steven Hayes