Math Formula

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

You Misunderstood Me!

“An order that can be misunderstood will be misunderstood.”

  - Napoleon Bonaparte

Do yourself a favour and completely remove "You misunderstood me" from your dictionary. Whenever you are still tempted to use it, say "I'm sorry, maybe I expressed myself a little bit confusing, and what I actually meant was ...". (At least remove it from your active vocabulary; for 'backward compatibility', as we nerds like to say, it's o.k. to keep it in your passive vocabulary.)
If you bought the above core message already, no need to continue reading, we're done for today. There is not much more to come, since I'm really fundamentally and unconditionally convinced about the above said and the essentials are in that small change in mindset. However, if you are interested ...

As indicated above and some of you might know already, I'm currently working in IT, an industry not particularly well known for the outstanding social skills of it's representatives. Even though you should take series like The IT Crowd and Big Bang Theory with a grain of salt, a huge portion of funny insights into reality can't be denied. Talking about nerds, even though misunderstandings are something completely normal and can happen whenever humans communicate with each other, I sense that the combination of rather low social skills and a big of self-esteem due to great wisdom in their domain are an extremely fruity ground for misunderstandings.

However, I'm really convinced that raising at least a little awareness about the principles of communication would simplify and improve so many things, both at work and in private life.

The sender-message-channel-receiver model from David Berlo dates back to the 1960's, and many of the recent findings in the field of communication can be attributed to Schulz von Thun (mainly known for his Four sides model, which goes beyond the scope of this post).
According to Wikipedia, communication usually described along a few major dimensions: Message (what type of things are communicated), source / emisor / sender / encoder (by whom), form (in which form), channel (through which medium), destination / receiver / target / decoder (to whom), and Receiver.

Since the target 'decodes' the message, this is actually the only part of the entire transmission of information that really matters. It simply does not matter what the sender had originally said, if it was not clear and precise enough. I think that's also what the little Frenchman from the quote at the beginning wanted to tell us. It does not matter what one says, as long as there is any possibility for it to be misunderstood! (Apart from that, am I the only one wondering about the similarity to Murphy's law?)

Consequently, it is your obligation as sender (i.e., the one saying something) to make sure your message can be understood as well. Trust me and develop trust into the people around you, they generally are willing and doing their best to understand you. If they did not, it's your fault (and if you misunderstand this, it's mine). If you are not certain what your communication partner understood, just ask her to repeat in her own words.

"So I did not misunderstand you either, just YOU said something confusing!"

Now as you are enlightened and you are correctly accepting your responsibility as sender, you might be tempted to completely refuse all responsibility as a receiver. After all, that's the bottom line of what I described above, right?

As so often, the story goes on ... and another issue enters the stage: respect. As you are enlightened now and your colleagues probably are not, I suggest being generous and taking all the blame on your side ("Sorry, I think I misunderstood you, could you please explain it again?"). That's not a sign of weakness, but a sign of strength and willingness to successful communication.

I know it takes a while to adopt that approach, but once you are into it, it will just feel natural. Once you are aware of hit, you might feel like hit by a lightning whenever you hear somebody saying the evil "you misunder...".

Just that we understand each other, how about some Dilbert?

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