John P. Frazee, Director of Faculty Relations, University of Colorado-Boulder

February 12, 2014

Thoughts on miscommunication, misunderstanding, and curiosity.

I've been struck by how frequently the interpersonal conflicts I'm called on to help resolve—not to mention incidents of unprofessional behavior and dysfunctional departments—have their origins in miscommunication and misunderstanding. Face-to-face communication poses the least risk of misunderstanding. Tone of voice and body language provide information beyond the words being spoken, and being in the presence of a colleague tends to moderate the impulse to ratchet up the rhetoric. Talking by telephone involves greater risk because there is only tone of voice to aid in understanding the message. Riskiest of all, of course, is communication by email. (You can click on my article, "Don't His Send Until You Read This" for a detailed discussion of the perils of email.)
Whatever the medium, if miscommunication or misunderstanding occurs, a couple of things happen. First, the parties try to make meaning out of the misunderstanding. Doing that requires making some assumptions about the other party. If the two parties have a good relationship and trust each other, chances are that the assumptions will be charitable. ("Charlie's sciatica must have been acting up when he sent me that mean-sounding message.")
If the parties don't know each other well, the likelihood of making negative assumptions goes up. ("Charlie thinks he can talk to me that way because he has tenure and I don't.") Untested assumptions can quickly become accepted as facts. From there it's a quick jump to making judgments about the other party. ("Charlie is trying to intimidate me. He's a jerk.") Once we form a negative judgment about someone, we're likely to view future interactions in light of it. Needless to say, the likelihood of misunderstanding increases, and a downward cycle can set in.
To avoid--or break--this unproductive cycle, make a point of checking out your assumptions: "Charlie, in your last email to me you sounded angry with me. Do I have that right?" Charlie might confirm your assumption, in which case you can talk about what's bothering him. Or Charlie might respond that he wasn't angry at all and explain what his thinking was. Either way, you can clarify your mutual understanding--and strengthen your relationship at the same time.
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