Oh Dear Ms. Communication
Miscommunication doesn’t really exist.
“What?!! Miscommunication doesn’t exist?! It’s everywhere!” you might be saying to yourself.
Stick with me for a minute.
Miscommunication is little more than a figment of your imagination — an organization of your perceptions by your brain wherein you sense you and another person have not connected, missed each other, or otherwise failed to gain meaning in common.
This surely indeed happens, but it does not mean you haven’t communicated. You have. It just didn’t go that great. It's not miscommunication. It’s just communication that didn’t go well.
It’s an illusion. A smokescreen. Like running into a fence that might feel there, one that you can still get around.
Anytime humans speak to one another meaning is generated, a relationship is created or added to — we’ve communicated. The outcomes can be good or bad, but miscommunication isn’t “not communiction.” Bad communication is communication too. Even when we think communication isn’t occurring — if we’re interacting, communication is happening. Ideal communication is ideal, but that’s the goal, not the reality. Falling short of that isn’t “miscommunication” at all. It’s just communication. That’s how it goes!
Ok, so I don’t really believe in miscommunication, but in the wild, miscommunication happens — at least people talk about it like it’s a thing, so let’s deal with that first.
We think we’ve miscommunicated when communicating doesn’t work out as we likely expected it to — which, as a friendly reminder, is just an idea in our heads. Some information didn’t make it over, the whole thing was awkward, you didn’t seem to connect. They weren’t understanding and you weren’t doing much better. Or their interpretation was highly not in your favor. Maybe you used a wrong word or didn’t say something exactly as you wanted to. The look of miscommunication can be quite varied.
The thing is — that even in all these scenarios I’ve listed — you’ve still communicated.
You might be tempted to think that it’s miscommunication when people disagree or people understand things differently. This is incorrect. Multiple meanings is the norm, individual interpretation is a fact. No one is guaranteed understanding. Disagreement and different understandings aren’t even necessarily a bad thing. They can be quite healthy, actually.
Miscommunication is probably best understood as a failure to achieve satisfactory outcomes or as a failure to produce the intended effect, but this is more bad communication than miscommunication. Remember, intent only gets us so far.
Ideally, communication cuts good more than it cuts bad — more happy, joyful, and mutually beneficial than it is not, but communicating can go poorly of course as well. Sometimes for seemingly no reason at all. But just because things haven’t gone ideally does not mean they haven’t gone. I
t’s entirely normal for people to walk away from a conversation with different and perhaps incongruent understandings. Overlap and common understanding is never 1:1. “Miscommunication” is the norm.
Good communication has a hum to it, but it can also vibrate — and not in the good way. Communication vibration in this sense is akin to how vibration kills precision machines. Like that, except communication. Communication vibrates at three “levels” (if you want to think that way): information, interaction (aka “context”), and interpretation. These are the insert slots where potential error can be introduced into the communication process.
Information - the content, facts, experience or information you need to convey
Interaction - the parameters of the interaction itself aka context
Interpretation - the universally divine right for all to interpret information as they wish
These look like three nice, neat, distinct categories. In the wild of course, the errors we make when communicating weave in and out of these simple categories and get all jumbled up together.
Imagine a large meeting at a workplace where management is leading a conversation — it looks like a presentation — about how the organization needs to restructure. People will lose their jobs. The whole scenario is already on edge before a word has been spoken. We can think of this as one of potentially many, interaction or context factors — what’s being talked about, the serious nature, the emotional potential. An additional fact is that there was another one of these meetings two years prior. It was spirited but also traumatizing to some. The smells of interactions past hang in the air.
Early in the meeting, the senior leader speaking says, “we anticipate 15 people may lose their jobs or have to drastically change the work they do.” Someone in the back hears “50 people” instead of 15. The information is compromised. The room is big and rumblings start to murmur in the back corner of the room.
Later in the meeting, someone makes an emotional comment about feeling their job is under threat having just gone through this in the last round. There is swearing and accusations. Tension is high. After the hour long session with presentation, Q&A, and audience comments, the meeting ends and people retreat to their desks where even more conversations are had. Additional interpretation happens. (It’s already been happening.) Certain things become clearer. Others get muddied.
Tiny vibrations - the wrong information, incorrect interpretations, “overreactions” (quite a judgemental concept, don’t you think?), and historical precedence all can make communication wobble. Wobble too much, and things fall apart. Vibration is hard to see but it’s there if you look.
We’re at constant risk for “miscommunicating.” So much that it’s far better to accept the “miss” in miscommunication as just part of how she goes. Miscommunication might be bad communication, but it’s communication nonetheless.