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  • Writer's pictureBarbara Mayfield, MS, RDN, LD, FAND

Does misinterpretation plague your communication? Keep it open with clarification.

Young male is holding his head in his hands and looks exasperated.

Has your communication ever been misinterpreted? Have you ever misinterpreted the messages or intentions of the communication of others?

If so, you’re not alone. In fact, “Miss Interpretation” was selected as the biggest communication challenge of attendees in my mini workshop on miscommunication at the California Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics Annual Conference last week.

What is misinterpretation?

Misinterpretation is forming an incorrect understanding of something someone said or did. It occurs for many reasons. Many of these are discussed in the post Did Miss Interpretation make an appearance?

An easy way to think of what causes misinterpretation is not getting enough information to know what is meant. We can fail to do this when we assume we understand or are hesitant to ask for clarification.

Misinterpretation is all too common in our communication. What can we do!?!

Keep communication accurate and open with clarification.

Ultimately, the solution to the plague of misinterpretation is to assure correct interpretation and understanding through clarification. This is the responsibility of both the sender and the receiver. Let’s look at the part each one plays in preventing and overcoming misinterpretation.

It would be easy to blame misinterpretation on the receiver of your communication, but blaming the audience can be counterproductive. As the communicator, it is essential to take responsibility for offering and providing any needed clarification.

Begin with clarity and prevent misinterpretation with a clear understanding of your audience.

The better a communicator knows their audience and can communicate with words and context that are meaningful to them, the less likely communication will be misinterpreted. Test your messages with your audience for clarity.

Look for verbal and nonverbal signs of misinterpretation.

As communication is delivered and received, pay attention to the reaction of your audience. Do they appear confused? In disagreement? How do they respond with written or spoken words? Pay close attention to how they express either understanding or misinterpretation or some amount of each.

Check for correct interpretation and understanding.

Determine whether your perceptions of their response are correct or if you are misinterpreting them in return. Ask for feedback with open-ended questions. Invite receivers to restate the topic of discussion in their own words. A prompt for this could be, “How would you explain this to a friend?”

This is similar to the teach-back method, which is useful not only with patients but with clients, students, and other audiences. This approach invites the receiver to describe or demonstrate what they have learned.

Provide clarification where needed.

When incorrect interpretations have been identified, provide clarity. Restate the message differently, adding new explanations and examples that are meaningful to the audience. Repeat the steps above until misinterpretations have been eliminated.

Ask for clarification until you understand correctly and completely.

As the receiver of communication, take steps to make sure you have not misinterpreted the meaning or intentions of the communicator. Provide the input and feedback they need so that misinterpretation is avoided, and a common understanding is achieved. Fulfill your part each step of the way…

Provide input to help communicators understand you and your needs.

Clearly communicate what you think, feel, and do, not only when formally asked, but at every opportunity. The better others understand you and your needs, the better they can communicate with you. Participate actively in surveys, focus groups, and audience interviews. Speak up.

Provide clear feedback about communication.

Show and tell your understanding of a message in ways that clearly convey your response. Don’t assume you have interpreted a message correctly, share your interpretation and check whether you are mistaken in any way. Be respectful. Don’t jump to conclusions. Keep the dialogue positive.

Ask for clarification.

If the communicator doesn’t check for understanding, take the lead, and ask them to respond to your interpretation of the message. When you feel confused about a point, ask them to provide clarity, “I am confused about _____, could you explain that in another way?” Persist until satisfied that you understand them correctly.

Eliminate the plague of misinterpretation. Keep communication open. Ask for and provide clarification.

If you don’t understand something clearly that you are being taught…speak up. If you feel something is confusing or you are unsure of exactly what to do…ask about it. If you need clarification or something repeated to make sure you got it…request it. If you feel lost, forgot something, or feel like you are falling behind…bring it up. Nodding your head, saying “yeah, yeah” and pretending to know things you don’t is right up there with one of the worst things you can do… ~ Loren Weisman, messaging and optics strategist

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