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Here’s The Best Way To Avoid Miscommunication

In this Q&A with communication educator Katherine Hampsten, we arrive at some essential advice for understanding others in the digital age.
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Here’s The Best Way To Avoid Miscommunication

Speak some words, receive some words. Throw the ball back and forth indefinitely. Cross your fingers that you understand how to avoid miscommunication.

Our early conception of human communication looked a lot like this very simplistic sketch. Known as the Transmission Model, this theory posited that communication is a message that moves directly from person to person.

Of course, we know that’s only half the story today. The more evolved Transactional Model suggests that communication is like playing a game of catch with a ball of clay as it volleys back and forth, becoming reshaped and distorted with every pass by our own subjective filters and perceptions. The idea is that as we talk, we also get feedback from the other person, and meaning is something we create together.

These concepts were illustrated in this TED-Ed lesson by Katherine Hampsten, Ph.D., associate dean of the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at St. Mary’s University.


Katherine Hampsten’s original TEDEd lesson on miscommunication.

Here, Hampsten gives a couple pointers on how to avoid miscommunication:

  1. Recognize that passive hearing and active listening are not the same. Engage with the verbal/nonverbal feedback of others, and adjust your message to facilitate greater understanding.
  2. Listen with your eyes and ears and gut.
  3. Take time to understand as you try to be understood. Be open to what the other person is saying.
  4. Be aware of your personal perceptual filters. Don’t assume your perception is the objective truth.

Wanting to dig deeper, Babbel asked Hampsten a few questions. Here’s what she had to say about adjusting our approach for the more error-prone realm of texts and emails, as well as connecting with others when you don’t even speak their language.

BABBEL: One of the recommendations the TED-Ed gives is to “engage with the verbal and nonverbal feedback of others, and adjust your message to facilitate greater understanding.” Can you give an example of how this might actually play out in real life?

HAMPSTEN: As your readers know, words are important. They certainly matter! But we communicate in so many other ways, in addition to language. Nonverbal communication, such as posture, eye contact, fidgeting, looking at one’s watch or smartphone — these are all indicators of how the person is perceiving the situation and the person speaking. We can also pay attention to paralanguage cues, such as vocal pitch, tone and rate of speaking as means of communication.

When verbal and nonverbal meanings contradict, most people tend to believe what those nonverbal cues indicate rather than relying only on the verbal cues. For example, if a friend tells you that she’s “fine,” but her posture, facial expression and tone of voice suggest otherwise, you’ll likely assume that she’s not really doing well at the moment. Similarly, if a job candidate says he’s interested in the position, but arrives late to the interview wearing disheveled clothing, you may pass him over for another candidate whose nonverbal communication aligns more closely with the verbal.

BABBEL: If you know you have a problem with “getting ready to speak” when you should be listening instead, what’s one trick you can try in the moment when you’re liable to revert to your old habits?

HAMPSTEN: Great question! It’s easy to listen through our own personalized perceptual filters. Our first instinct may be to consider how what we’re hearing affects us personally and how we feel about it, especially if we are in a moment in which we disagree with what is being said.

One trick I recommend is to depersonalize the listening encounter. Imagine that you are watching the situation from a distance and temporarily turn off that personal filter. As you listen, think, “That’s interesting. I wonder why she or he is thinking/feeling/responding this way? What will she or he say next?” The value of this technique is that it can help us to listen with a more neutral stance. Ideally, listening this way will open us to a better communication experience. We’ll learn something from and/or about the other person we did not already know, and we’ll respond in a way that more accurately reflects the full complexity of what’s being communicated.

BABBEL: I’ve heard accounts of bilingual couples who say that relying less on words to get their point across has actually strengthened their communication in some ways because they’re by default paying more attention to nonverbal signals. What are some specific tips you would offer to people who are communicating with someone in their own language to help them get less hung up on semantics?

HAMPSTEN: Set your intentions, or listening goals, for that situation. Think about why you are listening to this person. Is the goal to problem-solve? To make a plan? To learn more about a situation? These are examples of instrumental goals, but it’s also important to remember that communication is a relational process. Sometimes the most important goal is to demonstrate through our listening that we are offering support and concern for the other person.

Here’s an example. When I listen to students in class, I know that as their professor I should probably be offering some sort of critique. Students expect their professor to be listening carefully to how they present information and develop their ideas. However, I also know that my listening serves functions beyond the task of assigning a grade. I’m also listening as a way to get to know those students better, to build trust and goodwill with them, and to encourage them in the learning process. Those encounters, like most of our daily experiences, are both instrumental and relational in nature.

BABBEL: Following up on that point, what advice would you give to someone who’s in a country where they don’t speak the language at all, but they still need to somehow communicate successfully with others?

HAMPSTEN: Learning common words and phrases in another language can go a long way in communicating across language barriers. It’s also important to have an appreciation for the customs, norms and etiquette in the other country, as well. We often assume that the intended meanings behind nonverbal communication, such as smiling or head nodding, are universal. Rather, many nonverbal cues are learned culturally, so it’s crucial to research the other culture’s communication style beforehand.

That being said, it’s unrealistic to be prepared for every possible contingency. I’ve found when traveling that, if I’m respectful and I’m making some good faith effort to use even basic words in the other language, most people will try to work with me. Communicating effectively in another language requires attention to both verbal and nonverbal cues, patience and some level of humility.

BABBEL: As we all know, more and more communication takes place online or via text these days. We all know it’s easier to understand each other in person, but it’s not always practical or feasible to do so. What are some specific tips for how to avoid miscommunication online?

HAMPSTEN: 1) Don’t assume anything! When we remove the richness that comes from tone of voice and body language, the language itself bears most of the load. Words can easily be misunderstood through our own subjective filters. It can help to put ourselves in the other person’s shoes and consider how she or he will likely interpret our message.

2) Consider tone. Many years ago, I had a coworker who would read his email out loud in the most sarcastic, unforgiving tone you could imagine. Even innocuous messages like, “Please remove personal food from the break room kitchen on Friday afternoons” could be construed as angry barbs. While his renditions were intended to be humorous, they served an important point — your reader may not be giving you the benefit of the doubt that you would assume. In most cases, keep your tone as positive, upbeat and friendly as is appropriate for the particular situation.

3) Invite feedback. We know that communication is a transactional process, in which we are simultaneously sending, interpreting and responding to messages. Soliciting timely, focused feedback is more difficult when we are communicating online. When the other person is not on the phone or sitting across from you, you are not able to see or hear those nonverbal cues. There’s also a lag or delay in receiving a response. I’ve recently borrowed a technique from a colleague that is quite helpful with soliciting feedback through email. She often signs off messages with a question and a request: “What are your thoughts? Please let me know.” This technique serves an instrumental purpose; it sets the assumption for an ongoing conversation and facilitates that feedback. But it serves a relational purpose, as well. The question and request convey that the writer cares about what the other person thinks and wants to be mindful of that person’s perspective.

4) Finally, recognize that sometimes a phone call, video conference, or face-to-face conversation is needed. Technology presents an opportunity to connect quickly and easily across time and space, but communication about issues that are complex, sensitive in nature and/or require immediate feedback may best be communicated through channels that are more personal.

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