The eight most common reasons for misunderstandings

August 25, 2020

One of the biggest challenges of humankind is misunderstanding each other. Misunderstandings have led to divorces, wars, and corporate fights. Social media and its algorithms increase the risk of misunderstanding. In addition, it quite ofter gives you dopamine rewards after the heated and negative discussions you participate in. We all should aim to have a positive view of people and their opinions. This will smoothen the trip to a shared and better understanding. In addition to this, we should always ensure that we have understood other people correctly as they meant themselves to be understood. This will save us a lot of energy and may unpleasant discussions.

We humans have always been extremely good at misunderstanding each other. Sometimes accidentally and sometimes deliberately. So what causes misunderstandings?

The eight most common reasons for misunderstanding

Arto Mustajoki of the University of Helsinki has made an excellent list of the common reasons causing us to misunderstand each other. Now that social media algorithms are feeding negativity and the cancel culture is increasing globally, it is a good time to stop to think about our own behaviour. In fact, I at least have noticed that misunderstandings and heated discussions have been increasing in my social bubble. We would have excellent global discussion platforms, information acquisition channels, and short virtual distances, but we still manage to feed the culture of negative emotions and misunderstandings. This happens in families, workplaces, social media platforms, and chatting with friends.

1. One's own sense of reality

We always interpret the world through our own lenses or sense of reality. It is affected by the social environment, family, religion, education, and many other aspects of our lives. The effect is partly conscious and largely unconscious. We don’t even realize how often we have unconsciously misinterpreted something due to our own biases, assumptions, or prejudices. And this happens to all of us!

2. Person's limited knowledge or vocabulary

Sometimes there is a situation where another person’s knowledge or vocabulary is simply not enough to imagine or understand what the other person was trying to tell him or her. In this case, the understanding remains superficial or returns to point 1, i.e. the person presenting her case is being misunderstood. A person can also be a "real-life expert", but in reality, she knows the phenomenon only superficially due to limited vocabulary or scientific knowledge. This emphasis to need for talking without any theoretical or too complicated words. This is a challenge e.g with various self-help books or tips. People do try changes in their lives and feel good for a moment. In real life or in the long run, the impact will turn negative or don't work at all for another person.

3. Unclear message or pitch

This is sometimes a challenge for me. My message, my talk, elevator pitch, or what I say on the phone or in the zoom is unclear to the one listening. In this way. Unfortunately often the ones communicating forget to clarify the idea and message. The good old test to explain your case or matter to a five-year-old or mother serves as a good test of if the message is simple and clear enough.

4. Interfering factors such as background noise

Each of us can certainly identify a situation in a disco, bus during the rush hour, or on the street that we have heard differently what the another person has said. This can cause an immediate emotional reaction and often only later we aknowledge that we are talking about a different topic.

5. The matter is simply heard wrong

Same as point 4, but often happens at home, for example. We easily misunderstand when our brain automatically combines things and words with each other. We interpret what is heard through the lenses of what we were just doing or a familiar framework. This happens often especially at home when we spend time with our loved ones.

6. Diversity of a language - the same words are understood differently

A good example of language diversity is dialects. Due to the limited capacity of the brain, we use a limited number of words. Words thus have several meanings depending on the context. The same word can have a different meaning between the dialects. This may lead to comical discussions between people if the meanings and the context of spoken words are not clarified. If you have this weird feeling, you might want to check what the other person actually meant.

7. The listener interprets the matter differently

Related to #1. This is, in my opinion, the biggest challenge of social media. People ofter interpret the matter from her own sense of reality or worldview. And we do this unconsciously. We may have a discussion about self-leadership, well-being at work, shortening the working day, religions, immigration, or even terrorism and we all interpret the debate based our own worldview. We don't spend energy on understanding each other but end up having a "fight" about the matter. This leads everyone to have a bad feeling eventually. In the meanwhile, lot's of likes and social media dopamine has been received into our brain.

8. Sending or presenting your message to the wrong person

You pressed the send button and oops. You noticed at the moment of sending that the message is sent to the wrong Maija or Matti. This is probably the most human misunderstanding of all. We simply send the message to the wrong person by mistake or forget to make sure the person is the right stakeholder to promote what we pursue. For a salesperson who breathes and loves sales, the well-being and resilience of a team is not necessarily the most important thing on her list.

How to get out of the habit of misunderstanding?

Meaningful and inspiring conversations are extremely important for personal development and mental wellbeing. As the use of social media becomes more widespread, misunderstanding is becoming an even greater challenge for humanity. Who would like to get stuck with misunderstandings about small things in the workplace or at home? What could we do differently?

We should be empathetic or optimistic about each other while interacting. This also develops our growth mindset. In addition, each of us can learn to listen and make sure we have understood the matter just as the other person wanted to put it. Open and well-argumented questions should be asked. We should aim to seek true and validated information on the subject and form our opinion only after that. When we all aim for smooth and calm interaction, we have come a long way. Do not let those social media algorithm likes and the following dopamine bursts take us on the path of misunderstanding.

As long as we become aware of possible ways of misunderstanding on the basis of the above eight-point list, we can each strive to understand things correctly or as they have been presented. This allows us to discuss the matter itself and its arguments rather than imaginary interpretations.

This blog was inspired by Timo Honkela's book The Peace Machine, which included a summary of why and how we humans misunderstand each other from research done by Arto Mustajoki, Professor Emeritus at the University of Helsinki. I recommend the book to anyone interested in humanity and algorithms.

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