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4 Crucial Questions to Help You Avoid Miscommunication

Should you really say that? Ask yourself these questions to find out.

Key points

  • Interpersonal communication can easily become distorted or inaccurate, based on one's emotions and the other person's interpretation.
  • Taking a step back to ask oneself what the intention is behind a statement first can help curtail misunderstandings.
  • Rehearsing remarks before speaking can lead to better communication choices.

Why is so difficult to be clearly understood by another person? It seems straightforward enough at first, but when you break down the process of communication into its component steps, it doesn’t look so easy, after all.

Consider this: You have a precise thought, and you formulate it perfectly into words — except that your thoughts aren’t always so precise, and you can’t always think of the correct words to use. (Maybe you’re influenced by your emotions, too.) You speak aloud, and your words pass through the air — competing with other noises and disturbances and transformed by accents, regionalisms, and other effects produced by your unique manner of speaking.

Eventually, your words are heard by another person, and meaning is transferred…except that whatever is heard is physiologically distorted by imperfections in the other person’s sense of hearing. It’s then also interpreted against any emotional noise or interference, and unconscious assumptions, with which they happen to be coping. Ultimately, some form of meaning is extracted, but after this whole process, is it likely that the exact meaning you intended should come through without ambiguity?

No one can always overcome the heavy noise-to-signal ratio in basic human communication. Remember the last argument you had with someone close to you? Perhaps, when you spoke up, you wanted to be helpful, but your partner found your remark insulting; perhaps you only wanted to air out some strong feelings, but your parents were mortified. In situations like these, it can be quite surprising to learn that your intentions were not fully carried over. Nevertheless, there are ways to refine your communication that can help you express yourself and be heard more effectively.

In almost all cases, you run a serious risk of misinterpretation by speaking up when you haven’t fully thought through what you intend to say. Holding forth spontaneously, without thinking first, can easily go wrong. Perhaps you’re watching your partner select an outfit as the two of you prepare to leave for a party. It occurs to you that you don’t agree with the way your partner is dressed, and you almost say “Are you really going to wear that?” It’s not difficult to see how this remark will be received: quite badly.

What is the intention behind your remark?

Let’s rewind. Before you ask your question, ask yourself what its purpose might be. What is the purpose of this remark? you might wonder. Is it your intention to criticize your partner’s choices? To express surprise? Or are you really trying to do something else — say, to remind your partner that the weather report predicts rain, for which they are not prepared?

You may well discover an innocent or helpful intention. However, if you answer this question honestly to yourself, you may also have to admit that you actually are not happy with what your partner is wearing — that your remark was indeed intended to criticize. If you know this, you can make a more informed choice about whether or not to say it.

Is it worth saying? If so, how might the other person react?

In most cases, if you have thoughts that seem critical or might pick a fight, I’m guessing you’ll be more likely to choose discretion. In other words, once you recognize what you’re trying to achieve with your comment, you can ask yourself: If this is my goal, should I want that? Is it OK to let my partner know I don’t like the outfit du jour? Or not? How might they react to this remark?

Then again, if your intention is to remind your partner to prepare for rain, you might feel certain that it’s worth saying. You’ve been clear with yourself about your intentions, and you know that you only want to be helpful. Imagine your partner’s reaction when you say, “Are you really going to wear that?” Think through the responses you’re likely to get. Briefly compare these responses to your intention — in this case, to point out that the weather might require a different choice.

Is there a better way to accomplish your goal?

Now it’s time to ask yourself, is there a better way to accomplish this goal? In many cases, it isn’t difficult to find a way to say what’s on your mind without leaving yourself open to vague or harmful interpretations.

For instance, you might simply remind your partner that it’s going to rain, later, or tell your partner that you’ll bring an umbrella because you’ve heard the forecast. If you take the time to consider how your remarks might come across — after they’ve been filtered through your own biases, those of your partner, and all the other ambiguities inherent in human communication — you’ll be much more likely to make word choices that genuinely reflect what you mean, and are better calculated not to offend.

Learn to pause before you speak

Ultimately, all of the suggestions I’ve listed above come down to the issue of pausing before you speak — of taking the time to ask yourself how your remark might come across. (This is a small way to improve your insight into your own behavior — something I’ve written about before in a post about recognizing your own biases, and another about internal critical distance.)

Try to rehearse the conversation in your mind before you speak. If you want to bring up something especially serious, you might even want to go over it with a friend or a family member. This should help you can plan out your conversational opening and test it out for potential flaws. Ask yourself: What is the listener likely to hear, and can it be misinterpreted? What do you really intend to communicate, and is that something you really want to say, or might it be better to say nothing at all?

Remember, all communication is subject to significant distortion because we’re all only human. Taking the time to ask yourself what you really mean and questioning whether what you plan to say is a good way to express your meaning can help you get that meaning across in a much more effective way.