Psychology of Misunderstandings

Psychology of Misunderstandings

A sad woman

Have you ever been in a situation where you and a friend you were close to, somehow just faded away. Could have been because of a certain misunderstanding, lack of communication or holding onto the expectation that they would initiate first. We have all misunderstood or misread a sign and ended up in the wrong direction at some point in our life. How are we prone to such situations and what are the underlying processes through which this happens? Our mind is an expert at detecting patterns, and problem solving, although sometimes cognitive biases can take place and misdirect your situation. Let us understand the mechanism behind why misunderstandings happen.

A number of processes take place when we are communicating. Two people (suppose you and your friend) are playing the roles of sender and receiver. During the conversation, messages are passed on to one another, they perceive each other’s body language, and listen to what both of them want to convey. Additionally, they also try to recollect their past knowledge and experiences to understand, interpret and add to their own opinions.

Cognitive Schemas and Biases

While communicating, one person expresses their own interpretation of a message, while the other person who’s listening, hears their own interpretation of that message. Our perceptual filters continually shift meanings and interpretations.

These perceptual filters through which we base our interpretations from conversations come from our “cognitive schemas”. Schemas are our own mental frameworks or structures that are collectively made from our past experiences, knowledge, beliefs, assumptions and judgements. Our schemas shape our perception and how we judge current social scenarios with people. We tend to use these structures to associate similar events/ situations happening in our current life. We can think of schemas as our storage of ‘collective memories and learning’ that we continuously reinfer to make quick conclusions and judgements to reduce time. For example, we see a dog running towards us. If we’ve had negative experiences with a dog before, we may hold a belief that dogs are dangerous, and aggressive and may bite us, therefore our schema might lead us to interpret the situation as a threat.

Unclear Language:

Language that holds some level of ambiguity, can cause disruption in understanding what one feels about the significant other. For example, one who genuinely asks “what happened, are you okay?”, as they recognise the other person is feeling low. The other person replies, “I’m fine” to avoid further conversation, indicating that “I don’t want to talk about it” or “I’m disappointed, but I don’t want to tell you”. At times the ambiguity may lead to potential misunderstanding.

Clay of Communication: how messages are moulded

You and your friend are talking, imagine the conversation as a lump of clay. While expressing one’s opinions you and your friend throw this clay to each other (like throw and catch). As each person touches the clay, they mould the clay to fit their own unique perceptions, based on a number of variables like knowledge or past experiences like age, gender, race, ethnicity, religion, or family background. Every person interprets the message they receive based on their relationship with the other person and their unique understanding of the semantics and connotations of the words being used. Your feelings and past experiences also come into play while you’re interpreting the message conveyed by your friend.

As the lump of clay moves back and forward from one person to another, the clay is reworked, reshaped and always changing. Sometimes, our messages turn that clay into a mush of miscommunication. The process of reworking and reshaping can lead to miscommunication if there are conflicting interpretations, or even misinterpreting something that the other individual said.

Telephone game of misunderstandings

Have you ever played the game of ‘Chinese Whisper’, where a group of people sitting in a circle are told a word or phrase and the goal is to spread that message around the circle by whispering in each other’s ears, turn by turn. When the message goes around the circle, it is interesting how it undergoes alterations and evolves into a different word/phrase itself. This may happen due to misinterpretation, different perspectives and our own biases. But if we use clear communication, like speaking clearly, actively listening and checking in with each other to make sure the message is understood by the other, misunderstandings can be prevented.

Similarly, misunderstandings can be viewed as a game of Chinese whisper, where the original message converts into something else due to misinterpretation. Clear communication, active listening and checking for understanding can help minimize the telepathic distortions that take may take place in real-life conversations.

Although, there are ways wherein we can avoid this miscommunication from happening
  1. Passive hearing and active listening are different

It is essential to engage actively inclusive of verbal and non-verbal feedback from others, and adjust your message to facilitate better understanding.

  1. Communication is more than words

Eyes, ears and your gut are the three tools you need to efficiently use together, to actively listen to what the other person wants to convey. Take time to understand as you try to be understood, meaning, communication is a two-way street where both should listen, and understand effectively.

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