Speaker or Listener: Who’s Responsible For Misunderstandings?

There’s been an age-old argument in the communication field: who’s at fault if a misunderstanding occurs – the Speaker communicating badly, or the Listener misunderstanding?

Let’s look at some facts:

  1. Speaking is an act of translating what’s going on internally into communication that enables others to understand an intent – choosing the most appropriate words for that particular listener in that particular situation. But the act of choosing is unconscious and may not render a full or accurate representation of what is meant.
  2. Listeners translate what they hear through a series of unconscious filters (biases, assumptions, triggers, habits, imperfect memory) formed over their lives by their:
    • world view,
    • beliefs,
    • similar situations,
    • historic exchanges with the same speaker,
    • biases on entering the conversation (like sellers listening exclusively for need).

    What a listener hears is fraught with so much unconscious filtering that their ability to hear accurately what’s meant is untrustworthy, except, possibly, when speaking with someone known over time.

  3. According to David Bellos in his excellent book Is That a Fish In Your Ear?, no sentence contains all of the information we need to translate it. As listeners, are we translating accurately? What parts of what we hear are biased?
  4. Unfortunately, too often we expect listeners to understand us when we believe we have spoken clearly. Listeners might accurately hear the words spoken (depending on many unconscious factors and filters), but it’s another story when listeners attempt to understand what’s meant because our brains don’t tell us what it has unconsciously left out or interpreted subjectively. So while a speaker might say ABC, we might think ABL was said, and adamantly, stubbornly believe we’re correct when we’re not.

    Since communication involves a bewildering set of conscious and unconscious choices on both sides, accuracy becomes dependent upon each communication partner mitigating bias and disengaging from assumptions; the odds of communication partners accurately understanding the full extent of intended meaning in conversation is unlikely. It’s quite a complicated mess of factors and can cause lost business, failed projects, and mangled relationships.

    My new book What? Did you really say what I think I heard?  focuses on listening: how we mishear, misunderstand, and otherwise misinterpret, and where and how the gap between what’s said and what’s heard occurs. I even came up with ways to avoid misunderstanding altogether.

    While researching and writing the book (which took me 3 years)  I realized that the responsibility for effective communication is heavily weighted in the court of the listener. If listeners don’t have skills to catch or prevent their biases or unhook from their unconscious, subjective filters, or at least realize when they might have misinterpreted what’s been said, the speaker’s words and intent are  moot: they may be misconstrued regardless of their accuracy or how ‘clear’ a speaker thinks she is.

    The listener is the wild card given the number of biases he brings to the table. So as a rule, after a speaker speaks, she must then become an alert listener herself to make sure the response received is within the bounds of acceptability. Or check in with her communication partner to agree on mutual understanding. Given there are so many subjective, unconscious filters on both sides, it’s amazing we communicate at all.


    About the Author

    Sharon Drew Morgen is a visionary, original thinker, and thought leader in change management and decision facilitation. She works as a coach, trainer, speaker, and consultant, and has authored 9 books including the NYTimes Business BestsellerSelling with Integrity. Morgen developed the Buying Facilitation® method (www.sharondrewmorgen.com) in 1985 to facilitate change decisions, notably to help buyers buy and help leaders and coaches affect permanent change. Her newest book What? www.didihearyou.com explains how to close the gap between what’s said and what’s heard. She can be reached at [email protected]

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