Clarity First – on understanding one another

What is difficult? [ about A Cognitive Substra...

What is difficult? [ about A Cognitive Substrate for Natural Language Understanding ] (Photo credit: brewbooks)


I think I’ve already said that clarity is the first priority in communication (especially written communication, which potentially could transcend the ages). I’ll probably say it again. What I won’t say, though, is that there’s no excuse for not being clear. There are lots of excuses.

Here are some of the things that limit clear communication:


  1. Language is an imperfect tool under the best of circumstances. It was invented by a bunch of rank amateurs, using a process of trial and error, and is constantly being reshaped by its users, most of whom are also amateurs. It’s a complex system of sounds/visual code associated with meaning, and while we sometimes make the mistake of thinking that our language necessarily must be able to express anything, this is in fact boloney.
  2. People (the users of language) are imperfect. They may be tired, rushed, or in the throws of some strong emotion. They also can vary widely in their natural language ability or acquired level of skill.
  3. Any language, and especially English, is not a uniform beast. Not only does it change over time, but it also contains variants at any given time (regional dialects, cultural idioms, jargon).  In order to understand each other, we have to agree on what the words mean, as well as on the basic grammatical structure – and we don’t always do either one.
  4. The interpretation of language is terribly context-dependent. Basically, we’re not all coming from the same place, and where we’re coming from varies with who we are, where we are, and what we’re doing on a moment-to-moment basis.

All things considered, it’s amazing we actually manage to understand each other fairly well most of the time.

So I’ll always forgive you for not being clear. It’s a little harder to forgive people for not at least trying to be clear, but even then I know there are times when communication isn’t really a person’s top priority. And whenever I realize that I’ve just been misunderstood, the first thing I do (well usually) is reexamine what I actually said to see if I can identify the problem. Did I just say it badly? Or is there some possible alternate context that I failed to take into account? Of course, if I’ve got the other person face-to-face, I can also explore their insights into the issue – or just try again with a slightly different approach.

One thing I learned from being on the teacher side of the education fence is that, no matter how carefully you word the question, someone will manage to misinterpret it. My reaction when this happened was always to feel bad. Not because I assumed the misunderstanding was my fault – because of course it wasn’t necessarily – but because it meant my attempt to find out what the person had learned about the subject of the question had failed. (That’s failure of the assessment tool, rather than failure of the student.) The student may or may have known the answer – and I’ll never know which it was. (I always hated to mark those questions wrong, and tended to be very generous with any partial credit I felt I could assign.)

Now, I have encountered teachers – and, of course, others – whose reaction to being misunderstood went something like, “well I know what I was trying to say, so if you didn’t understand me it must be your fault.”

That is a position I find pretty unforgivable.






Leave a comment


  1. Over my work career, whether it be interacting with coworkers, the public, or my trainees, I was often surprised by how easily it is for others to misinterpret my meaning even when I thought I was being clear. But communication is so much more than just the words we choose, or even the body language we use to help guide those words. It also involves the receiver–whether they heard it correctly or if their perceptions are the same as ours. So as you point out, we really need to make sure our message is clear. Having the receiver repeat it back to us can help bridge the miscommunication gap.

    • Good point, Carrie. Repeating back is a great way to check understanding. Since I know I don’t always get things, I sometimes do that – when I’ve asked for directions or instructions, for instance – to make sure I understood. In writing, you don’t have that luxury. So I double-check if Im reading, or proofread if I’m writing, etc.

  2. You bring up a nice point. I have always felt that any kind of instructional writing, like from a teacher to a student should follow the rules of grammar as rigidly as possible. I am not a big fan of the prescriptivist approach, but sticking to the rules makes room for lesser mistakes and chances of being misunderstood. I think.
    I do agree that the conveyor of the message has to make the effort to make it as unambiguous as possible.

    • I think most of the rules are about clarity, though some seem arbitrary or even counter-intuitive. You’re right that using good grammar is a good place to start but you also have to think about your audience. If they aren’t very sophisticated in their understanding of grammar, for example, it’s a good idea to keep your writing simple, as well as grammatical, so you won’t lose them. There’s just a lot to consider, and, no matter what you do, you’re going to fail sometimes.

  3. G M Barlean

     /  August 18, 2012

    In different leadership training courses I’ve participated in, they like to do varying types of Meyers Briggs or color wheel style personality evaluators, the thinking being, who we’re talking to and how they perceive things has to color the way we present information. As a fiction writer, it reminds me of why it’s so important to know your genre before you write.

    • Oh, yeah, absolutely. Audience, audience, audience. When I did my certificate in technical writing, there was a big emphasis on knowing who you were writing for. For technical writing, it was about what your audience needed to get from the writing, as well as what their background and perspective would be. For fiction, it’s more about the reader’s expectations, I think, and that would relate to the genre.

  4. Very important points here. Sometimes I wish I had a recorder so that I could prove to my husband that he didn’t say what he thinks he said, and he says I have potatoes in my ears. It’s a battle that can’t be won.

    Attention to detail is important, but not everyone thinks the same details are important. One person might think he/she gave enough info to carry out the instruction or deed or what have you, but the receiver of the instruction simply might need more information before he/she can process it correctly.

    It is all about communicating on different levels and being able to explain things differently to different people based on their learning abilities. I know that with my two kids, I have to explain something to my son in a different way than I explained it to my daughter. And it is because of how they process the info.

    • Different processing styles is another good point. I have a son with a learning disability and sometimes I really wish I could experience the world the way he does so that could better understand some of the things he says and does. In general, though, it’s amazing that we manage to communicate with these strings of sounds/symbols.

  5. A great reminder of why we say anything at all–to be heard and understood! Your post also reminded me of something someone said to me very early in life, which I used to take as gospel but now am not so sure about: “You need to be able to write well in order to think.” The idea was that without language as an organizing framework, thoughts would be random, scattered, and inaccessible. In the case of thinking about an engineering problem or a business organization, that may be true. But in the case of the heart, language can get in the way. Some of us spend large parts of our lives trying to get back to that preverbal time when we experienced the world through our senses, wordlessly.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: