"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.