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I used to always think of myself as a good communicator. After all, I have spent a significant part of my career translating complicated engineering instructions for medical devices to language that the everyday person can understand. Despite this, I have come to learn that much of that which I hope to communicate gets lost in translation, and a lot of times people don’t know exactly what I mean. I’m not alone though, because it happens to all of us.

Different People, Different Interpretations

We each have our very own way of communicating messages to others–our own individual language of sorts. And, even though we might speak the same English language, the way we use those words, as well as their implied meanings can vary from person to person. Consequently, we can say one thing, intending to communicate a specific message, and the other person hears those words, but interprets them differently.

No matter what, there will always be a communication deficit between us and others, because we are individuals with different perspectives, interpretations, and views of the world. Nevertheless, we can work to lessen the gulf between what we mean, what we say, what others hear, and how they interpret our words. Likewise, as listeners, we can do our best to understand others better by actively listening and clarifying statements we don’t understand.

A bigger problem exists, however, when we think we understand what a person is communicating, but are wrong. As a result, we can find ourselves acting on incorrect assumptions about the person’s intent.

Trying To Fix It

By now, you’re probably expecting me to present some surefire solution to effective communication. But, if you’ve been paying attention to Axiom Amnesia, then you know that I don’t have the best solution for your situation–that’s for you to determine.

What I can tell you, however, is that first and foremost I find that being a better listener helps me to be a better communicator. When responding to a question, it’s helpful to make sure that I understand what the person really wants to know. There are times when I’ve realized that I haven’t asked the right question to get at the answer I’m looking for.

This doesn’t mean that I am looking for a particular answer, but rather the answer to a specific question. For instance, if I want to know if someone has some free time for a discussion, suppose I ask them, “Are you busy this afternoon?” Phrasing the question this way doesn’t express to the person the true intent of my question. Consequently, it’s much more direct to say, “Do you have some time to talk this afternoon?” The key here is to say exactly what we mean–I admit that I struggle with this sometimes. I’ll talk more about saying exactly what we mean in the next section.

Another important point is that if I am trying to initiate a conversation about my view, I find it helpful to have a continued dialogue with the person after expressing my initial thoughts. Sometimes it will become evident that they have misunderstood something I said, and figuring this out gives me a chance to clarify things with them.

Being Direct: Saying Exactly What You Mean

One of the best ways to help people understand what you mean is by saying exactly what you mean–not further complicating the communication process by causing the person make assumptions about the point of your statement.

People have many reasons for not being direct in their communication. Sometimes it is because they would rather operate from a more ambiguous position to give themselves more flexibility in navigating social politics.

Another reason that people choose not to be direct is due to their adherence to political correctness and social norms. Simply put, they don’t want to be rude. People are constantly weighing the consequences of their words. For some, the preference to avoid the negative consequences that truthfulness can bring motivates them to dilute their words for the purpose of making them more palatable to the listener. When we do this, we should expect miscommunications to occur. In fact, this is purposeful miscommunication!

Trying IS Caring

Finally, I’ll share something that Heit said when we were discussing this subject. I expressed to him that I often find it difficult to express some of my most complex ideas and feelings to others–almost as if there were not adequate words to make sense of what I could see and understand clearly in my own head. His response? Well, he basically told me that this happens to us all IF we are thinking. Moreover, it is a sign THAT we are thinking.

When you think about it, this is so true! Words are the inadequate tools that we are given to express abstract concepts. For words to be 100 percent effective, we’d all need to have exactly the same vocabularies and understandings of their meanings. We know that this is obviously not the case.

The takeaway for me is that it is unrealistic to expect that we will suddenly become a communication guru, with the power to control other people’s interpretations of our words. What we can do, however, is not give up trying to be understood and trying to understand others. The fact that we want to understand is an indication that we care enough to put forth the effort.