Communications between people are subject to bias, perceptual filtering, and misunderstanding.
Misunderstandings can cascade, if not clarified, leading to misinterpretation and conflict.
Good communication and problem-solving are skills that can be learned and practiced.
Originally posted in Psychology Today: https://www.psychologytoday.com/intl/blog/the-stories-we-tell/202311/how-to-resolve-most-any-conflict-the-problem
Most of us believe we are very good at communicating with other people. Most of us assume that once we have made a statement, it has been understood as it was intended. But, good communication does not occur naturally. Communication is a skill that requires development and practice.
Reflect, if you will, on the myriad conversations you have today…with friends, family, neighbors, or co-workers. What is the likelihood that the people involved in those conversations walked away with the same understanding that you had, of what was intended?
The majority, upward of 75 percent, of all spoken communication is misunderstood, ignored, or forgotten (Guffey & Loewy, 2016; Tankovic, Kapeš, & Benazić, 2023). Our tendency to convert conveyances to fit our own point of view is so drastic that a more realistic assumption would be to presume that whatever has been said, or heard, has not been understood.
As humans, we have a strong tendency toward bias. Cognitive biases are a result of natural filtering processes that help us simplify information in order to process it. We use our personal experiences and preferences as filters to understand and interpret the world around us. Biases are processing errors that occur when we unconsciously distort what other people say to fit our own point of view. While this reliance on assumptions is largely automatic and outside of our focus, it strongly influences how each communication is interpreted and recalled.
The disconnect happens because we assume we have correctly understood what another has said and/or believe that the other has understood what we have intended. But, we tend to hear what we want to hear, to fit it in with our established beliefs. Further, we tend to assume that people hold points of view that are stable and predictable. This is not true. Each person’s identity is fluid, ever-changing, and dynamic; so, people’s beliefs, values, perceptions, and attitudes remain in flux. This becomes even more complicated when we consider human diversity. We all use different perceptual filters based on factors like culture, context, upbringing, and genetics. Having disparate filters means that people rarely attribute the same meaning to words.
Perhaps surprisingly, our poor understanding of one another holds true regardless of how well we know the other. The accuracy rates for communication remain the same for spouses as for strangers (Van Der Wege et al., 2021), demonstrating the illusion of transparency. Familiarity does not improve comprehension. Quite the opposite. The more we have in common with another, the larger the tendency to make biased assumptions about the communication and the more quickly we presume an understanding between one another.
Nonverbal dimensions must also be accounted for. Nonverbal elements account for almost 70 percent of total communication, easily changing the meaning of a verbal message (Barnum & Wolniansky, 1989). This is especially notable in technology-mediated platforms, like emails and social media, where there is a reduction of nonverbal cues, frequently leading to miscommunication, disinformation, mistrust, and confusion.
Putting this all together, we can see that it is quite easy for communication to become miscommunication. Indeed, communication is challenging, even in the absence of conflict. So, what happens when conflict is added into the mix?
When a communication is interpreted as a conflict, we tend to perceive it as a threat. Any perceived threat floods our bodies with a cascade of stress chemicals, helping us prepare for fight-or-flight. We have now been "triggered." This reaction interferes with memory and lowers our intelligence for responding in any way other than defensively. Complex decision-making evaporates, our attention narrows, and we become fixated on “I’m right—you’re wrong” in order to respond to a perceived attack and feel safer. We fall back on simplifying and categorizing people, often relying on an “us” and “them” mentality. As with physical threats of danger, our response to potential social threats tends to be defensive, which often prompts anger, aggression, and conflict.
Conflict is further aggravated because competition is woven into our drive system. All organisms naturally compete for limited resources for things such as food, shelter, and mating partners. While competition has evolutionary advantages, it can easily create a perceptual bias that precipitates a negative spiral leading to conflict that escalates due to the reciprocal aggressive and competitive behavior of the parties involved (Kennedy & Pronin, 2012).
Finally, violent conflicts are often driven by narratives of injustice, harm, and past trauma (Gehrig, Buchanan, Holt, & Ramsbotham, 2023) along with historical legacies and geographical and economic politics. The narratives we ascribe to, including beliefs about identity, belonging, community, and relationships, unconsciously shape our understanding of and responses to others. Conflicts are not inherently bad—they potentially help us address grievances and can lead to stronger bonds between us; however, conflict can also feed unresolved wounds, weaken trust, and promote violence as a viable option for advancing personal interests. Simplified narratives especially can become exaggerated and self-reinforcing.
It is also true that our primary directive as humans is to survive. We have an innate capacity to mediate conflict. We want to bond with others. We desire harmony, fulfillment, and meaning. We are hardwired for empathy, cooperation, and friendship. These drives inspire us to nurture, set goals, and continuously strive for growth and affiliation. Learning how to communicate with each other and resolve our problems effectively requires hard work. It is a fundamental truth that we will not understand what we are perceiving, and others will not understand us, without effort, practice, and the incorporation of key strategies.
Change begins when we are able to recognize and take responsibility for our biases, commit to putting aside existing assumptions, and really concentrate on grasping the other’s point of view. Fortunately, we have at our availability multiple, empirically validated strategies that really work. These details will be elaborated in the second part of this series.
References Barnum, C., & Wolniansky, N. (1989). Taking cues from body language. Management Review, 78(6), 59–60.
Gehrig, M., Buchanan, C. Holt, S. & Ramsbotham, A. (2023). Building Trust in Peace Mediation. United States Institute of Peace. https://www.usip.org/sites/default/files/Building-Trust-in-Peace-Mediation-USIP-Evidence-Review-Paper.pdf
Guffey, M., & Loewy, D. (2016). Essentials of Business Communication. (10th ed.). Cengage Learning.
Kennedy, K. A., & Pronin, E. (2012). 'Bias Perception and the Spiral of Conflict', in Jon Hanson, and John Jost (eds), Ideology, Psychology, and Law, Series in Political Psychology, https://doi.org/10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199737512.003.0017
Tankovic, A. C., Kapeš, J. & Benazić, D. (2023) Measuring the importance of communication skills in tourism, Economic Research-Ekonomska Istraživanja, 36:1, 460–479, DOI: 10.1080/1331677X.2022.2077790.
Van Der Wege, M., Jacobsen, J., Magats, N., Mansour, C, B, & Park, J. H. (2021). Familiarity breeds overconfidence: Group membership and shared experience in the closeness-communication bias, Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 94. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jesp.2020.104097.