Do You Understand What I Mean?

On August 4, Dr. Cathann Kress, Iowa State University Vice President for Extension and Outreach, shared some information on conducting a “pre-mortem” for an organization to prevent the death of an organization. She asked a group of individuals to project five years into the future and image that the organization had failed. When asked what caused that failure there were six major reasons given. The first and most significant reason was poor communication, both internally and externally. It received 28% of all of the comments made by these individuals.

It reminded me of that old line from the “Cool Hand Luke” movie; “what we have here is a failure to communicate.” Everywhere you turn you hear people say the cause of that problem was poor communication or miscommunication or no communication. But, do we even know what we mean by these statements? Do we even know when we have communicated or not?

I recently ran across an old favorite statement of mine. I used this statement a lot when I was counseling with young people and their parents. It says; “I know you believe you understand what you think I said, but I am not sure you realize that what you heard is not what I meant.” This statement says a lot to me about how difficult it is to communicate with others. Many times in my life I hear the same message as another person and then when discussing that message I wonder how in the world that person ever arrived at that meaning. The other person and I aren’t on the same page with the message. In fact, we are not even in the same book. But didn’t we hear the exact same message?

The truth of the matter is, while we heard the exact same words, we in no way necessarily interpreted the same message. When trying to communicate we are forced to use words. Those words have some common meanings that provide for us a sense of understanding. For instance, we have dictionaries that provide commonly agreed upon meanings to use when trying to understand the message. Many times these definitions are helpful. At other times the definitions are not that useful. For example, look up the definition of the word love. In my dictionary there are 13 different definitions. Does this present any opportunity for misunderstanding, miscommunication?

I might say the word “love” and you might hear me say the word “love.” However, depending on the context, my tone of voice, my attitude, my current mental state, my values and beliefs, and  your perspective of all these things as well, the meaning you understand may not be what I actually intended. In reality, the definition of the word has less to do with the meaning understood than the perceived meaning interpreted. In other words, words don’t have meaning. People bring their meaning to the words.

Therefore, communicating is far more involved than simply sharing information or even sharing common definitions. It is a process of sharing an intended meaning, having someone interpret that meaning and sharing his/her understanding of the meaning back to the sender to check that what was intended by the sender was actually received by the receiver as intended.

The communication process requires as much listening and clarifying as anything. Therefore, in order to make certain you received the message intended; you need to share what you heard the person say and what you interpreted that message to mean. If the message was received as intended, then the communication was successful. If the message was not received as intended, then the communication was not successful. The parties involved must continue to share the message, listen fully to that message, share back what was interpreted from that message, and ask if that was correct. If enough time and commitment is spent in this process, then the chances of communication being successful are greatly enhanced.

It is no wonder communication is difficult. I only hope that what you have read and interpreted is actually what I meant to share.

Until next time, keep working hard to understand and communicate with others. Let’s not have a “failure to communicate.”