The Goal Of Communication Is To Be Understood

I often warn people that it’s shockingly hard to communicate your thoughts to someone else.  Far too often, I speak with entrepreneurs who are frustrated by how their employees or even co-founders don’t understand what needs to be done.

That’s when I tell them, “The goal of communication is to be understood.”  Your responsibility goes beyond making the effort to state things clearly (or so you believe); it extends all the way to conveying the meaning of your words and confirming that your conversation partner has understood them.

This is one of the reasons I often recommend that people short-circuit lengthy email chains by picking up the phone.  It’s easy for people to think that all they need to do is hit “Reply”.  After all, then their response is on record.  And they get to feel good that they “did something” about an issue.  But writing a good email doesn’t mean that the recipient will understand.  If you’re a leader, you should hold yourself to a higher standard.

That’s why I was interested it read some of the scientific backing for my advice, from Heidi Grant Halvorson:

“Most of the time, Halvorson says, people don’t realize they are not coming across the way they think they are. “If I ask you,” Halvorson told me, “about how you see yourself—what traits you would say describe you—and I ask someone who knows you well to list your traits, the correlation between what you say and what your friend says will be somewhere between 0.2 and 0.5. There’s a big gap between how other people see us and how we see ourselves.”

This gap arises, as Halvorson explains in her book, from some quirks of human psychology. First, most people suffer from what psychologists call “the transparency illusion”—the belief that what they feel, desire, and intend is crystal clear to others, even though they have done very little to communicate clearly what is going on inside their minds.

Because the perceived assume they are transparent, they might not spend the time or effort to be as clear and forthcoming about their intentions or emotional states as they could be, giving the perceiver very little information with which to make an accurate judgment.”

The transparency illusion explains why so many people think they’ve been clear, and yet have communicated far less than they believed.  It affects everyone, even the very intelligent.  Sometimes, someone will be talking about an important issue, and it’s clear to me that they think they’ve been crystal clear, and I’ll have to tell them, “I have no idea what you just said.”

If you think other people are getting what you’re saying, you’re wrong.  Don’t stop communicating until you’ve confirmed that the other party understands what you’ve said.

2 thoughts on “The Goal Of Communication Is To Be Understood

  1. I think at its core, there is an information incompatibility problem – the information you've in your head vs. what is in the other person's head when you're trying to communicate. Many times, you assume that the other person will get it.
    Psychologists call it the Curse of Knowledge

    Also, here is an illustration based on Elizabeth Newton's study of tappers vs. listeners.

  2. WPR

    The word that best captures this phenomenon is *solipsism*.

    the view or theory that the self is all that can be known to exist.
    – the quality of being self-centered or selfish.

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