Misunderstanding: All the right words…in the wrong order?

Misunderstanding causes confusion, chaos and conflict. It reminds me of that wonderful quote from Morecambe and Wise

He played all the right notes, just not necessarily in the right order.

No matter how carefully we choose our words and how intently we listen, miscommunication still happens. There are a couple of reasons for this. Understanding these can help us figure out how to minimise misunderstanding, notice it when it does happen and prevent major issues.

Let me describe a situation in which people knew explanation and listening skills were being tested, even skilled listeners/explainers still misunderstood.

Checking explanation and listening skills

Participants sat back to back in pairs, with a writing implement and a piece of blank paper, folded in half.

On one half, they each draw a simple picture of an object which the other person cannot see. The other is blank to draw on the object verbally described by their partner.

Then, they take turns to describe that object, purely in terms of shapes and lines for the other person to draw unseen. They cannot say what the object is, how it is used or what it is like. They cannot ask questions. The explainer explains and the listener listens.

Once both have had a chance to explain and to listen, they compare results.

On the left is the result of one. Now, I could see the original and knew the person describing had clearly and correctly described all the shapes, and the person drawing had drawn them fairly accurately. However, there were a couple of things that weren’t mentioned, because the “explainer” assumed that the “listener” knew the same things they did, and the listener was not allowed to ask questions.

While the shapes were correct, their positioning was very different from the original. The listener had folded their paper in half in a different way than the explainer. The listener assumed that the explainer was describing a duck…


Misunderstanding or misinterpreting is often at the heart of conflict. The Independent reports that a third of adults have fallen out after misreading a text. Even if misunderstanding is not the spark that ignites the conflict, the mere fact that one is in conflict changes the way situations, words and actions are understood. NVC practice talks about “enemy images” where we assume that a person is specifically trying to hurt us.  As we dehumanise the other party, conflict escalates, and we become our worst selves–“because they deserve it”…

So why does this happen?

After reading a post by Jane Gunn  I created the two images below to show little we actually communicate in normal circumstances, and how stress impacts this.




How can I avoid damage from misunderstanding?

Reducing misunderstanding