Monday, April 20, 2009

Every question can be misinterpreted (communication is hard!)

"Would you rather have lived in Leidschendam?" that sounds like a pretty straightforward question to someone who knows that Leidschendam is a town in the Netherlands, isn't it? (and when you see the picture here of the center of this town the answer would Yes!) But even to this question there are two interpretations!

I'm doing a series of interviews with neighbours in our (young) area. This was one of my questions. I always think I have been trained on the job by living in Mali, Ghana and Ethiopia to formulate my questions as clear and unambiguous as possible, so I was surprised that this question was interpreted in a way that escaped my observations. I thought the interviewee answered it the way I intended it: whether she would rather live in the town called Leidschendam than in the Hague. I didn't realize that this part of the Hague where we live used to be part of Leidschendam. So she interpreted it as 'Would you have liked this area to be called Leidschendam rather than the Hague"? Fortunately we were two doing the interviews and the other person knowing the history better than I understood this different interpretation. Confusion, confusion...

This is even a small confusion compared to the misunderstandings we have around concepts related to knowledge management for our paper on impact assessment of knowledge management strategies. It shows communication between people from different backgrounds, frames of mind or mindsets can easily be distorted. It shows the importance of a common framework for easy communication. After all, old couples really only need half a sentence.. But where that framework is absent, we have to be careful.

So how to work with this? If you are aware of this distortion, you can try and work in tandem with people who know more about the background (in this case, the co-interviewer). It really calls for teaming up, because working in two's makes this easier. And you can build in sufficient checks. When a common understanding is crucial, you write it down, or paraphrase it in a conversation. That allows you to see the misunderstanding. When you have a skype conversation, you can type your understanding at the same time while you talk, that also help for clarification.

Nancy Dixon has a good blogpost on perspective taking and how you can learn something new by opening your perspective to other people's perspectives. She argues that this already starts by using inviting language.


Mark Turpin said...

cool post Joitske - thanks! In South Africa our political discourse is conditioned to a significant degree by cultural miscommunication and misinterpretation. In our current election campaign, the leader of the opposition, Helen Zille, referred to the ANC Youth League leader Julius Malema as "an uncircumcised youth" - a major gaffe that maybe lost her party many thousands of potential votes as a result of misunderstanding the significance in another culture of her remark!

Joitske said...

Hi Mark, nice example, though you could argue that 'uncircumcised youth' is bound to insult... in any culture.. In Kenya people still talk about the uncircumcised Luos and how the can or can not be leaders because of that..

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Essays said...

Every question can be misinterpreted, This is a nice thing to get know about I think the given information is to tell peoples that what can be happen.

Unknown said...

The information about the"Every question can be misinterpreted (communication is hard!)" is really good, I think speaker must be send a clear word's to the listener.


Magento Themes said...

ya its very hard to make others understand when the interpret you wrong but i like the way you expressed things specially that example. Atleast it build up some hope to do more and more.

- Aansy stone
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The answer to your concern of questions being misunderstood, you could ask longer and clearer questions. If necessary two sentence questions. One is the question and the second sentence that qualifies and clerifies it. I know what you mean exactly. I have had spoons thrown at me for asking a simple question at a dinner table.

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