I was twelve years old and sitting in my optician’s small uncluttered waiting room. I was about to have my first fitting for contact lenses. Twelve was young to get contact lenses, but if you’d seen the horrendous glasses I had to wear, I think you’d understand why I was refusing to wear them. Somehow Dad must have realised how important it was to me and there we were.
My eyes roved the room. The walls were plain with no posters or art hanging on them.
Except for a small plaque. A plaque with a puzzling message…I could read the words but I had no idea what it meant:
“I know you believe you think you understand what you think I said.
However I’m not sure you realise that what you heard is not what I meant.”
Little did I know at the time, this unpretentious plaque captured the essence of human miscommunication. Uncovering its meaning would lead me to realise just how important it is to clearly grasp not just the words, but the intended meaning of the other person.
And yet it wasn’t until two decades later that I would find a powerful way to improve the chances of getting the meaning right.
I didn’t take too much notice of the plaque that first time and definitely didn’t understand what it meant. However, each appointment gave me a chance to chew on it. I was intrigued. Each visit it drew me in a little more, like an enigma demanding to be decoded. Each visit got me a bit closer to unlocking the meaning.
Then on one of the appointments I got it… boom! It finally made sense. I felt great, that feeling you get when you triumph over a gnarly challenge. Like a brain teaser where the pieces of the solution had finally snapped into place.
But as much as I knew what it meant, I can see looking back, that I still didn’t really ‘understand’ it. I didn’t really grasp that our intended message (or the meaning we want to convey) may bear little resemblance to the meaning received by the other party.
How many times have you explained something to someone or asked them to do something and, as a result of their actions, realised they completely misunderstand what you meant?
How many times has this meant problems? The wrong thing got done, someone upset, the deadline missed, the software missing functionality, people blaming others for not listening, or being stupid...
The words we use are labels... for concepts, ideas and objects that may be crispy clear in our minds but almost certainly have different meanings (either subtle, sometimes significant), from our communication partner.
Why do we misunderstand?
Here’s what actually happens when someone speaks to you:
- Their thought (intended message or meaning) - happens internally.
- Words spoken – the words they then use to convert their intended meaning into a verbal message.
- Words heard – the words you actually hear (which may not be what they said).
- The meaning you received – your conversion of their words into a meaning for you.
Their intended meaning, as it is converted to words on the way out, is filtered by their frame of mind, emotional state, life’s experience and their world view. These words are their best attempt to turn their thought into a series of labels (nouns) and actions (verbs) combined with connectors and descriptors.
Then the conversion of the words, to your understanding on the way in, is filtered by your frame of mind, emotional state, life’s experience and world view.
The map is not the territory
To further complicate things…we really do make it hard for ourselves don’t we?…the words we use are labels. They are not the real thing. They are labels for concepts, ideas and objects that may be crispy clear in our minds but almost certainly have different meanings (either subtle, sometimes significant), from our communication partner.
A good way to think about this is that a map of the street you grew up on is not the same as the actual street. There’ll be plenty of details missing from the map; plenty of stuff you know is there, that would not make sense to put on the map. But the map is still good enough for someone to use to find your place.
As Alford Korzybski1, the father of general semantics taught us, "A map is not the territory it represents, but if correct, it has a similar structure to the territory, which accounts for its usefulness".
The word we use for, say a chair, is a label we use to link to our ideas and image(s) of a chair. The word is the ‘map’ of the chair. The word isn’t the chair. It’s a useful construct we need for thought, language and communication.
Imagine a chair. The picture you just conjured up in your mind is not the same as the chair itself. There are thousands of possible chairs. The one you just imagined (your map of a chair) is almost certainly different to the one your communication partner has in their mind.
And that’s for a fairly unambiguous physical object. When the words are labels or ‘maps’ for ideas and concepts, the scope for differences is massive. And the scope for misunderstanding is huge.
But wait there’s more…
Relevance and meaning
We tend to ignore (without necessarily realising) things that aren’t relevant or have meaning for us.
As part of our attempts to make sense of the world we look for relevance and meaning in what we see, hear and feel through our senses. Our senses are bombarded continually. Things that don’t fit for relevance we tend to ignore. If they don’t fit, we just don’t even notice them.
I work for Bidvest. Stand on any major street in most towns or cities in NZ and within 30 minutes it’s highly likely you’ll see a Bidvest truck. But unless you’re in the foodservice game, or know our business for some reason, you’ve probably never noticed our trucks. I don’t know how many times I’ve met someone, explained who I work for and they’ve called me in the next few days to say “I’d never seen a Bidvest truck before but suddenly I’m seeing them everywhere.”The trucks were there all along but they’d filtered them out. That’s known as ‘deletion’.
We also tend to generalise from a small (often just one) example, issue or situation. It’s not uncommon for someone to say they’d never buy a particular make and model of car ever again, because the one they had was always causing problems. It was the only one they’d ever owned of that make but now they are completely turned off ever buying one again. That’s known as ‘generalisation’.
Prejudice, stereotyping and discrimination also fit in this camp. We’re generally not even aware of doing it. We’re not aware of the significant way this limits our options going forward.
Hmmm…so where have we got to:
- Intended message versus received meaning
- The map is not the territory
- Generalizations and deletions
Read more: Tech analysts, diplomats and brokers
Wow…you might be wondering that it’s amazing we ever get it right.
It certainly points to some of the key reasons we so often get misunderstanding – which lead to inefficiencies, late delivery, frustration and ultimately to conflict.
How can we minimise the chances of getting it wrong?
John Grinder and Richard Bandler2 developed an approach to clarity in communication they called the Pointers.
The Pointers may be the most useful and potent set of questions you will ever use.
Understand and own them and your communication clarity and effectiveness will massively improve.
Genie Laborde tells us in her excellent book ‘Influencing with Integrity’: “If you want to find out what another human really means by his communication and how his thought processes are affecting his behaviour, these five questions are the answer”
What are the Pointers?
The Pointers are a framework that will help you to shine a spotlight on what the other party really means.
Read more: David Spaziani: CIO to Gartner executive
They are laser focused questions to:
- Help strip away the ambiguity in language like removing the skin of a sweet corn to reveal the delicious food inside.
- Uncover the failings caused by generalisations and deletions.
- Expose the rules we impose on ourselves and others without realising.
So let’s dive in:
The first two pointers are the most important. They’re used to get clarity on non-specified nouns and verbs
- “Please paint the door”
- We don’t know, for sure, which door and we don’t know specifically how it should be painted (eg type of paint, colour, finish).
- “You need to deliver the report on time”
- We don’t know specifically which report or how they want it delivered.
- Would you just confirm for me how specifically you’d like me to deliver the report this time? – Verbally, PowerPoint presentation, written report?
- I was wondering, would you give me a little more detail on how you’d like the door painted
- “I understand that you feel you can’t do it and what do you think would happen if you did do it?”
- I’m curious, what specifically did you mean by …
- That’s interesting, would you explain what you meant by …
The third Pointer holds a mirror up to the ‘rules’ people have for their lives – “You should do this”, or “I can’t do that”.
The forth targets generalisations – “All women are caring”, All men like fast cars”.
The fifth is for challenging non-specific comparators – such as better – “This new feature in our software makes it three times better”.
Here’s what they are and how to use them
- Use the first Pointer to get clarity on any unspecified Nouns.
- Use the second Pointer to clarify any unspecified Verbs.
- Use the third Pointer to hold up a mirror to any rules (see below for how to soften the question so you don’t upset the other party)
- Use the fourth Pointer to hone in on any generalisations
- Use the fifth Pointer to seek explanation of non-specific comparators
The form of the question is: “What/Which ‘Noun’ specifically?”
– Which door do you want painted?
– What report would you like me to focus on?
The form of the question is: “How ‘Verb’ specifically?”
– How specifically would you like me to paint the door?
– How would you like the report delivered? One page summary? Detailed report? Written? Verbal presentation to the board?”
The form of the question is: “What would happen if you did/didn’t do it?”
– “I can’t do that!” – What would happen if you did do it?
– “I should do that” – What would happen if you didn’t do it?
The form of the question is to add a question mark to the generalisation
– All women are caring? – All women?
– All men like fast cars? – All men?
– We always have to do it this way? – Always?
– It’s like this every time – Every time?
– Everyone (No one) likes this – Everyone? (No one?)
The form of the question is: “Compared to what?”
– “This new feature in our software makes it three times better” – Better compared to what?
Softeners can help
Now, you can just ask the question, but that can come across as harsh or confrontational, so it’s generally a good idea to soften the question. Here’s some examples:
Best to find out now that you won’t need to attend the board meeting this time and that they just want a one page summary rather than the usual verbal delivery.
It’s also valuable if any word you use has multiple meanings, or may be open to multiple interpretations, to clarify which meaning you’re using or what you mean by it – and to ask them to do the same.
Knowing what to do is the first step. The next step is spotting them and becoming aware of them in your conversations and discussions. Challenge yourself to start to look for, and to become aware of, the unspecified nouns and verbs, the rules (should, shouldn’t, must, have to, can’t), the generalisations and the unspecified comparisons.
It’s so easy to miss them, but by being aware you’ll start to see them more and more. It’s like learning to drive a manual car with having to co-ordinate the clutch, brake and accelerator. It’s hard to start with and then it becomes easier (compared to what?)and more automatic.
Examples from history
Here’s a couple of disastrous examples in history where catastrophe could have been avoided if someone had used the Pointers to get clarity:
- Which front specifically?
- What measurement system specifically?
Read more: The CIO's secret to great conversations
The Charge of the Light Brigade. The written orders delivered to Lord Lucan were to attack the front. He asked which front and the deliverer of the written orders swept his arm in a broad direction. Lucan failed to drill in and ask, “Which front specifically?” He chose the wrong one – the Valley of Death – and the rest is history.
The 1998 Mars Climate Orbiter that was launched to study Martian climate and atmosphere composition. Engineers calculating the trajectory for entry for the Orbiter, failed to ask “Which measurement system specifically is used by the software in the Orbiter?” The problem was that the computer software on the ground was using the imperial system, while the Orbiter was programmed to use the metric system. They chose the wrong one for their calculations. As a result the Orbiter entered the Martian atmosphere at a trajectory that was too low and it disintegrated.
This is a powerful approach to help improve the chances of getting the meaning right. Take the time to digest it. Start listening for the unspecified nouns and verbs. Fix the Pointer questions in your head. The most important ones are the first two: Which Noun specifically? and Which Verb specifically?
Start to become aware of and notice the rules in your speech and others, spot the generalisations that limit so many options and don’t settle for unspecified comparators – ask compared to what?
If you do this your ability to get clarity from other’s messages and to convey crisply what you mean will skyrocket and have a profound effect on your life and the lives of the people you interact with.
- General Semantics stresses the arbitrary nature of language and other symbols and the problems that result from misunderstanding their nature.
- Richard Bandler and John Grinder were the co-founders of the field of Neuro-Linguistic Programming.
Campbell Such is GM IT for Bidvest, a wholesale food distribution business and a top 50 company in NZ. He has a varied career in New Zealand and internationally, working in technology, management and roles in marketing and sales. Reach him at Campbell.email@example.com and through his blog.
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