"The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place"
George Bernard Shaw
WE OFTEN take language for granted and assume a level of communication and understanding that, in reality, is not being conveyed. I was recently working with a Danish colleague who appeared to keep swearing for no good reason. The relief in the group was palpable when we realised she was actually talking about a factsheet she had brought with her (you try saying factsheet with a Danish accent). What was even funnier was seeing her trying to work out why we were so shocked that she had produced and brought such a thing.
You can see how these random misunderstandings can cause real trouble especially when you add multiple cultures to the mix. Speaking the same language doesn’t even stop this, as Winston Churchill once remarked about the UK and USA: “Two nations divided by a common language.”
I’m sure we can all think of examples where we have been confused or have caused confusion with our American cousins. For example, American pants are UK trousers, gas is petrol and a faucet is a tap.
Such dual meanings that could lead to misunderstanding are much wider than just the words we speak. All of us live in our own bubble of experience, which no one else has access to. So if you just received bad news and then don’t laugh at someone’s joke, they may think you have no sense of humour. You may think them insensitive. It’s not possible to keep everyone updated with what is happening to us all of the time, so this is bound to happen occasionally.
Sometimes within our own bubble we think that we are experiencing ‘reality’, and not just one perspective on it. When that happens we expect other people to understand what we do and to know what we know and to behave as we would expect them to. When more than one person is working from this position you can expect some outrage and incredulity of what they have to deal with in others lack of understanding and stupidity.
There’s a good illustration of this here in a sketch from Fawlty Towers. It’s the layers of misunderstanding, which make it so funny, but also demonstrate so beautifully how easily we get our wires crossed.
In this sketch the Major thinks the moose head is some new fangled gadget that has been programmed to speak because he never saw Manuel crouched behind the desk. When he then asked Basil where the moose head had come from, what he said made perfect sense if you were aware of the experience he had just had, but as Basil was unaware of this, he dismissed the Major’s words as nonsense.
How many times a day do you think this happens between people? It’s a common gag in films but is a daily occurrence in all our lives. If you want a master class in miscommunication, get hold of the entire Fawlty Towers series, sit back and enjoy!
Other forms of miscommunication arise when there are too many differences in our life experiences or values. Our core values drive most of our behaviours so when we try to live or work closely with someone who’s values are too different from our own, it can be impossible to find enough common ground to build a sound relationship.
The title of this blog comes from a song by Jim Reeves singing about a relationship break up, which really captures this mis-alignment: “Both aiming for heaven(s), but ours weren’t the same”. It’s a sad song but a lovely illustration of this incompatibility. You can imagine that when they got together they used a common language that led them both to believe that each meant what the other thought it meant, but over time realised it wasn’t the same thing at all.
So how can we reduce some of these misunderstandings in our own lives? The first step is to let go of the illusion that you have a good grip on reality. There is no such thing. We are all having our own individually tailored experience of reality, no one is enjoying the definitive version.
The second step is when we notice someone looking puzzled, outraged or amused by something we said, be curious about what they might have understood by it, rather than dismiss them as idiots. Conversely when someone says something outrageous to you, explore with them what they really meant.
The third step is perhaps the most difficult, which is to embrace the fact that people interpret things differently and have different beliefs about how the world works. With some people, the best you can hope for is to exchange viewpoints - changing them is a much bigger job that you are unlikely to achieve in a passing conversation.
Understanding all this is extremely useful for us creative freelances who have to communicate with a wide range of people, often with disparate objectives to our own. For example, when it comes to negotiating contracts, or finding collaborators or obtaining funding. Not everyone is going to think like you. So the more flexibility, tolerance and curiosity you can develop when talking to people, the more you will be able to forge a common path of understanding between you that will put you and your business in a stronger position.
So good luck as you continue to navigate through the wonderful world of communication or miscommunication, and may all your misunderstandings be funny ones.