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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.


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