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A Simple Misunderstanding

Recently, I’ve had a few conversations with people about interactions they’ve had that left them feeling frustrated, angry, confused, or hurt.

More often that not, these situations were a product of two very simple and related factors:

  1. They were making an assumption about someone else, and never stopped to ask for clarification
  2. They were reacting to the other person defensively

In both cases, the resolutions were simple:

  1. Open a new dialogue with curiosity, and then listen
  2. Re-assess the interaction with the most charitable interpretation

When we ask people for their side of the story, or clarification about what they meant, we can avoid the trap of assigning truth to the narrative we invented, and get a more well-rounded picture about the interaction. Usually, this is enough to resolve a simple misunderstanding.

However, even before that, if we give people the benefit of the doubt and assign the most charitable interpretation to their words and actions rather than assume malice or ill-intent, we subconsciously change our reaction and posture when interacting with them. This creates the space to have a productive dialogue.

Even if we find that our worst fears were correct, we are no worse off if we approach things with curiosity and a willingness to extend grace to the other person by default. In many cases, it can help us avoid that simple misunderstanding all together.

That’s it. That’s the whole post. You can stop here. Thanks for reading.

What’s that?

You think it’s more complex than that?


Well, if you really think it’s not so simple, then maybe we should dig deeper. MUCH deeper.

A more complex misunderstanding

I am someone who spends a lot of time asking questions. I find it difficult, if not unethical, to provide my clients with solutions without a clear and full understanding of the challenges they are facing. As a result, I’m a big fan of asking lots of questions to gain clarity.

But, clarity is not guaranteed, and the opportunity to ask follow-up questions is occasionally socially unacceptable or not feasible. This means that in day-to-day communication there is a problem.

A lack of clarity can cause trouble whether we’re at work or at home. There are many reasons why clarity is so elusive and thus contributes to misunderstandings.

Here are a few examples…

Ambiguity and Specificity

I often wonder how many misunderstandings are simply a product a vague or ambiguous language.

When someone provides instructions that are open to multiple interpretations, it can lead to confusion and misunderstandings. For example, a manager might say, “Please get me an answer as soon as possible,” without specifying a deadline or the desired format. This may cause the manager and their team member to have different expectations. This mismatch can cause friction and may lead to the manager getting frustrated about a delay for a task they failed to clarify a timeline for. After that, the employee may be labeled as lazy, unreliable, or other choice adjectives. Specificity could help avoid many of these misunderstandings.

However, when factoring in Neurodiversity, even specificity may not be enough.

Neurodiversity refers to the natural variation in human cognitive functioning, including differences in how people process information, communicate, and interact with others. Some of the more commonly discussed neurotypes are Autism, ADHD, and Bi-Polar Disorder.

People with different neurotypes often process information differently. For example, someone with ADHD might struggle to focus on details, which could lead others to assume they are careless or uninterested.

Lots of misunderstandings could be avoided if more people were specific about their requests. In other cases, it could be avoided by deeper understanding of and accommodations for those who process information differently.

Neurotypes aside, here is something that many of us will struggle with…


Midjourney Prompt: the feeling of trying to decipher jargon, watercolor

Using vague language or technical jargon that others may not understand can hinder effective communication. For example, a colleague might say:

“We need to synergize our efforts on this project to optimize outcomes. Let’s get aligned on how we intend to leverage some out of the box ideas and core competencies to drive value-add experiences, considering our available bandwidth, to move the needle for the client on their key performance indicators.”

What the heck does that mean?!

Even if YOU follow, would everyone on the team be able to translate that? This sort of talk is all too common in corporate environments and can leave team members unsure about how to proceed or collaborate effectively.

Lots of misunderstandings could be avoided if more people abandoned jargon in favor of simple language designed for clarity.

The Meaning of Words

Midjourney Prompt: black and white, ink, the meaning of words, picasso, mc escher, minimalist, collage

So much of our communication happens now over text or email. This removes much of the tone of body language that we take for granted when meeting with someone in person.

But we can get even more philosophical than this. Philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein’s philosophy of language explores how language is more than grammar and structure and goes on to emphasize how the diverse uses of language in everyday life lead to the meaning of words arising from context and social practices. While there are dictionary definitions of words and academic usage of language, much of the way we understand the word around us is through the language of our experience leading to the idea that each of us has our own vocabulary comprised of our unique understanding of the words we use.

So when you get a text that says “ok,” what does that actually mean? When you get an email that begins with “per my previous email,” how do YOU interpret that? While emojis and the addition of copious amounts of contextual and clarifying explanation can help, it’s still not a cure-all.

Our understanding of the words we hear and read are just that….OUR understanding. This may deviate from the intended usage from the person who spoke or wrote the words.

Lots of misunderstandings could be avoided if more people chose to be curious about the words other people use and what they mean by it instead of relying on their own interpretation alone.

Which leads to the next point?

The Application of Hanlon’s Razor

“Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity”

This rule of thumb would really come in handy if more people knew it and applied it. Instead, people have a tendency to believe that everyone else is acting rationally, logically, objectively, unemotionally, with calculated plans and meticulously chosen language.

And yet…

Most of us do not operate rationally, logically, objectively, unemotionally, with calculated plans and meticulously chosen language. We mostly just do stuff and say stuff, moving quickly from one thing to another. So, why is it that when someone fails to meet our expectations or says something in a way that we take as an attack, do we rush to assume the worst of them?

Lots of misunderstandings could be avoided if more people remembered that we’re all making it up as we go along. Most people are not thinking about their words to the extent that we assign to them on their behalf.

But misunderstandings can go beyond words…

Bodies of Language

There’s a stat that constantly gets floated around suggested than 93% of communication is non-verbal. Dear God, make it stop because it’s not true, and it’s profoundly dangerous to keep perpetuating the myth.

The history of this insidious little nugget stems back to 1967. Albert Mehrabian, a famous psychologist, published two studies about “message incongruence.” Message incongruence, for Mehrabian, was a situation where a speaker’s verbal and nonverbal behavior did not match. Mehrabian observed how frequently people made decisions when a speaker’s words “said” one thing but the nonverbal behavior “said” something else. This was the crux of his investigation.

Mehrabian ran two experiments with 137 college undergraduates — not even close to a representative sample — and determined 7% of decisions were based on the verbal message, 38% from tone of voice, and 55% from nonverbal body language. 38+55=93.

Over time this, and claims like it, were repeated, and became a thing that we collectively “know” about communication.

Mehrabian, our psychologist in question, later distanced himself from his own claim stating he never meant his finding to apply to all communication. This is correct, it does not. Somehow, people didn’t get that message.


While obviously body language and other non-word based communication is important, it is not 93% of communication. Obviously, it doesn’t apply to the massive amount of communication that happens digitally since tone and body language are largely absent, but even in person, it is only one of several contributing factors.

Once again, the conversation about body language shifts once we factor in neurodiversity.

Those who have Autism or ADHD may express body language that differs from the norms and expectations of people without Autism or ADHD, and thus may be perceived differently than intended or experienced.

Individuals with different neurotypes may have distinct communication styles, social cues, or sensory preferences. Others may make assumptions about their intentions, emotions, or capabilities based on these differences, potentially leading to misunderstandings or misjudgments.

Lots of misunderstandings could be avoided if more people were well versed in various neurodevelopmental differences as well as other factors that may shape people’s body language in a way that differs from standard expectations.

Regardless of neurodiversity, body language and tone are misinterpreted all of the time due to a variety of factors, such as…

We grew up in different neighborhoods

high rise buildings during golden hour

If it shocks you to know that different people have different life experiences, cultures, and neurotypes, then it will probably also blow your hair back to know that not all of those experiences or cultures are judged equally or fairly.

Cultural differences and neurodiversity can both play significant roles in shaping the assumptions people make about others and how they interpret information or social cues.

Culture encompasses a wide range of factors, such as values, beliefs, norms, customs, and communication styles, which can influence people’s perceptions and expectations. When interacting with individuals from different cultural backgrounds, assumptions may arise from:

Stereotypes and biases (conscious or unconscious)

People may unconsciously hold stereotypes or biases about a particular culture, which can lead to making assumptions about an individual’s behavior, beliefs, or preferences. These assumptions may not accurately reflect the person’s true characteristics, and can perpetuate misunderstandings and prejudice.

Communication styles

Different cultures may have distinct communication styles, such as direct or indirect, high-context or low-context, or varying levels of formality. Misinterpreting these styles can lead to confusion or offense, as individuals may make assumptions about the intentions or meaning behind the communication.

Different cultures may have an entirely different non-verbal vernacular that includes the use body language, facial expressions, and personal space preferences. Misinterpreting these cues may lead to making incorrect assumptions about an individual’s emotions or intentions.

Lots of misunderstandings could be avoided if more people were thoughtful about actively challenging their own biases and beliefs that labels behavior different from their own as problematic or wrong.

Is there an elephant in the room?

Midjourney Prompt: the elephant in the room, pixar

Far too often, we assume that there is some other unspoken subtext going on. We can sidestep so much of this by being curious and open. Unfortunately, it’s much easier to make up our assumptions and believe it.

To foster more accurate understanding and positive interactions, it’s essential to be aware of potential cultural differences and neurodiversity, and to actively question assumptions. Developing empathy, open-mindedness, and active listening skills can help facilitate more effective communication and stronger relationships.

These assumptions, paired with the various ways that we lack clarity in our communication, can lead to so many misunderstandings and problems. This can include:

  • Reduced trust and collaboration
  • Lost relationships or friendships
  • Increased stress and frustration
  • Lower work quality, outcomes, and productivity
  • Conflict, tension, and frustration

So, where do we go from here?

Ending where we started

In any of these deeper scenarios, we’re left still with two simple methods to resolve or avoid these misunderstandings in the first place.

  1. Open a dialogue with curiosity, and then listen
  2. Approach each interaction with the most charitable interpretation

We can believe that misunderstandings are complex or simple. In either case, the solutions are typically the same. It requires that we challenge our assumptions and get clarity, out in the open. Before we even get to that point, it helps to look for the best in others.

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