OTPIC Officially Retired

As of December 2, 2005, the Online Training Program on Intractable Conflict (OTPIC) has been officially retired, and is no longer open to new registrations.

The successor to OTPIC is a course called Dealing Constructively with Intractable Conflicts (DCIC). The new curriculum is built around one of our major projects, Beyond Intractability, and offers a much more extensive and informative set of learning materials than that available through OTPIC.

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International Online Training Program On Intractable Conflict

Conflict Research Consortium, University of Colorado, USA

  Misinterpretation of Communication

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Social conflicts often involve some misunderstanding. Conflict parties communicate by what they say (or do not say) and how they behave toward one another. Even normal interaction may involve faulty communication, but conflict seems to worsen the problem. The higher the level of conflict, the more costly misunderstandings may be. During the Cold War, miscommunication between U.S. and Soviet leaders could have been catastrophic in its consequences. At every stage and level of conflict, clear communication among parties usually works to reduce unwise decisions by and costs for the participants.

All communication has two parts: a sender and a receiver. The sender has a message he or she intends to transmit, and she puts it in words which, to her, best reflect what she is thinking. But many things can intervene to prevent the intended message from being received.

If the communication is verbal, tone of voice can influence interpretation. The bosses' words "hey, I noticed you were taking an especially long break this morning," could be interpreted as an attack if he said that in a disapproving tone; while the comment might be seen as a minor reminder about office rules, if it was said in a friendly way. If the employee had a problem requiring the long break, the comment might have even been a friendly inquiry about what has happening and whether the employee needed any help. Here, tone of voice as well as situational and relationship factors would influence the interpretation of the message.

Nonverbal cues also are important. Is the sender's posture open and friendly, or closed and cold? Is her facial expression friendly or accusatory? All of these factors influence how the same words will be received.

In addition to how the message is sent, many additional factors determine how the message is interpreted by the receiver. All new information we learn is compared with the knowledge we already have. If it confirms what we already know, we will likely receive the new information accurately, though we may pay little attention to it. If it disputes our previous assumptions or interpretation of the situation, we may distort it in our mind so that it is made to fit our world view, or we may dismiss the information as deceptive, misguided, or simply wrong.

If the message is ambiguous, the receiver is especially likely to clarify it for herself in a way which corresponds with her expectations. For example, if two people are involved in an escalated conflict, and they each assume that the other is going to be aggressive and hostile, then any ambiguous message will be interpreted as aggressive and hostile, even if it was not intended to be that way at all. Our expectations work as blinders or filters that distort what we see so that it fits our preconceived images of the world.

An analogy can be made to the science experiment done to test people's interpretation of visual cues. When people were given eye-glasses which turned the world upside down, they had to suffer through with upside down images for a week or two. But after that, their brains learned to turn the images back over again, so they were seeing things right side up. The same thing happens when we hear something we "know" is wrong. Our brain "fixes" it.

Given our tendency to hear what we expect to hear, it is very easy for people in conflict to misunderstand each other. Communication is already likely to be strained, and people will, most likely, want to hide the truth to some extent. Thus the potential for misperceptions and misunderstandings is high, which can make conflict management or resolution more difficult.


Links to Examples of this Problem:

Gareth Evans - Iraq's Invasion of Kuwait in 1990: A Failure to use Preventive Diplomacy
Evan's gives his assessment of why preventive diplomacy did not work in the case of the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. Misunderstandings were key to the problem in his view.
Roger Fischer, Elizabeth Kopelman and Andrea Schneider - Explore Partisan Perceptions
This is a short anecdote that illustrates how much our perceptions can be altered by our expectations.
Roger Fischer, Elizabeth Kopelman and Andrea Schneider -- Understand the Message as They Hear it
This is a story of a misunderstanding between the U.S. and Vietnam during the Vietnam war.
Alexander George- United States-Japan Relations Leading to Pearl Harbor
This is the story of the misunderstandings between the U.S. and Japan, which, George argues, lead to Japan's bombing of Pearl Harbor.

Links to Treatments for This Problem:



Active Listening

Dialogic Listening


Links to Related Problems:

Misinterpreted Motives       

Failure to Understand an Opponent's Perspective

Inaccurate and Overly Hostile Stereotypes

Crisis Communication

Cultural Barriers to Effective Communication

Copyright 1998 Conflict Research Consortium  -- Contact: crc@colorado.edu