Radically Improve Your Understanding of What People Mean

Communication is a two-way street. Someone talks. You hear, then interpret what they said. And this is the point where things can go wrong. We think we understand what they are saying, but often we don’t. Here’s why and what to do about it.

Four Reasons We Misunderstand What People Say

1. Words have multiple meanings

At an Apple iPod release presentation a reporter asked how long the battery would last. “For years,” the Apple representative responded, but the reporter interpreted it as “four years.” The story went out and Apple spent weeks assuring people that their iPod battery would function longer than just four years.

2. Tone of voice trumps words

I coached an executive who sounded angry when he communicated something in a hurry. In his mind, he was communicating factually and briefly. People disregarded his words and instead received the angry meaning his tone of voice communicated.

3. Non-verbal is more important than what you say

In the late 1960s, Albert Mehrabian did a series of studies that concluded: “When there are inconsistencies between attitudes communicated verbally and posturally, the postural component should dominate in determining the total attitude that is inferred.” In other words, people believe your body more than your words.

4. We add our own meanings

Humans think through filters of emotion and experience. When I was 12 years-old I ate Shrimp Cocktail that had gone bad. I was sick within hours. As an adult I once discussed dinner plans with another couple who wanted to serve Shrimp Cocktail. Immediately, I felt grossed out and wondered why this couple would want to serve that. I was conscious of my previous experience, so I adjusted. But many times we are not conscious and retain our meaning and emotions, even though those were not intended by the communicator.

How to Radically Improve Your Understanding of What People Mean

To radically improve your understanding what people mean you must assume you don’t know, be curious, and then ask them what they mean.

Assume you don’t know what they mean. This is difficult. Our minds tell us we do understand. However, as I pointed out above, our interpretations are not to be fully trusted. Sometimes we think we understand what the person is saying, however, they mean something different.

Stay curious. Ask questions. Clarifying questions are powerful tools to get at their real meaning.

And this is not just for you. By asking other people to clarify, they become clearer in their own minds. As they explain they feel heard and also reveal their meaning. You are coaching the person while gaining a better understanding for yourself.

There are several types of clarifying questions that will allow you to understand different things. One technique is to use their words or phrase in the clarifying question. Here are some examples:

Clarify Meaning

  • What do you mean by “a significant contribution”?
  • Could you give an example of “being on top of things”?
  • What does “relaxed” mean to you?
  • Could you say that another way?

Clarify Intentions

  • What would it look like if you were “a better father”?
  • What would you do differently if you were “a better mother”?

Clarify Thought Processes

  • What makes you say that?
  • What makes you believe this is true?
  • What evidence leads you to that conclusion?

Look for opportunities today to ask people clarifying questions. Notice the difference their explanation makes to your understanding. When used in a conflict situation, clarifying questions often de-escalates the tensions and increases understanding.

Asking clarification questions will radically improve your understanding of people’s real meaning. The fact that you listen and ask clarifying questions will communicate that you respect the other person.

Question: How do you get at other people’s meaning? You can leave a comment by clicking here.

    Keith is President of Creative Results Management. He helps busy leaders multiply their impact. Keith is the author of several books including The COACH Model for Christian Leaders.

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    4 thoughts on “Radically Improve Your Understanding of What People Mean

      • Good question. Misunderstanding is all the more potent with cross-cultural conversations, like turbo-charging them. The reasons for misunderstanding are the same in cross-cultural conversations. But some cultural gaps bring 3x impact and some are 10x. Because of this, it’s all the more important to ask clarifying questions so you can get to what the person really means. I think I got to my understanding of the power of clarifying questions because of the use of them in my cross-cultural experience.

    1. Sometimes I just ask them to “say more about that” and that gives more information as well as clarifies what is meant. It feels a bit less directive to me than “tell me more.”