Prepare for misunderstanding

IT’S a slow Saturday morning. Girlie and I have just finished listing the first 10 of her 60 wishes, big and small (she celebrates her 60th birthday on December 14). I think of writing a blog post, but instead surf the web. One more proof of what I read sometime back, that writers “find all possible excuses not to start writing.”

Thankfully, the latest blog posting of Seth Godin provides a trigger: You will be misunderstood

If you want to drive yourself crazy, read the live Twitter comments of an audience after you give a talk even if it’s just to ten people.

You didn’t say what they said you said.

You didn’t mean what they said you meant.

Or read the comments on just about any blog post or video online. People who saw what you just saw or read what you just read completely misunderstood it. (Or else you did.)

We think direct written and verbal communication is clear and accurate and efficient. It is none of those. If the data rate of an HDMI cable is 340MHz, I’m guessing that the data rate of a speech is far, far lower. Yes, there’s a huge amount of information communicated via your affect, your style and your confidence, but no, I don’t think humans are so good at getting all the details.
Plan on being misunderstood. Repeat yourself. When in doubt, repeat yourself.

Last December 3, I facilitated a learning workshop of Oxfam Hong Kong’s China Literacy Project. Part of my opening spiel was on the same topic.

I said that we usually presume that communication and understanding are the normal outcome of human interaction. So we get rattled and disconcerted when there is miscommunication and misunderstanding.

We can take comfort from the idea that the human “default mode” is at least partial miscommunication and misunderstanding. Hence, any really successful communication is reason to celebrate.

This “default mode” is based on the fact that we have our diverse histories and “literacies.”

One of my favorite quotes from St. Thomas Aquinas, quoting Aristotle, is “Quidquid recipitur, recipitur secundum modum recipientis.”

Whatever is received, is received according to the mode (capacity, style, interest) of the receiver.

Adapting Anais Nin’s aphorism, I included in the first Learning Pack this opening statement: “We see China, not as it is, but as we are.”

I could have also included this line from the prayer attributed to St. Francis Assisi: “Grant that I may not so much seek to be understood, as to understand.” Ed dela Torre


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