Understanding misunderstandings

Understanding misunderstandings

This past week I arbitrated a misunderstanding between staff of one of my clients, was asked to intervene in a communication breakdown between two of my friends, as well as observed a miscommunication dilemma that a mentee was facing.

My judgement of each of these scenarios would be unfair for the parties involved, as I do not know the full extent of their thinking, that prompted their behaviours. Additionally, my own subjective biases, based on my own perception of the situation, could distort any judgment.

Miscommunications and misunderstandings seem to arise from the other person not knowing the ‘full story’. With multiple possible interpretations, our mind has a tendency to interpret ambiguity as negative. This negativity bias is a major cause of miscommunication / misunderstanding.

Hence to help resolve the misunderstanding or miscommunication and restore a healthy relationship, I drew this matrix with the hope to help us think through for ourselves the reasons for our behaviour, that may have led to the situation.

I have found that the two key emotions that need to be understood in such situations are:

  • Feeling humiliation: defined as the emotion that takes over when you feel degraded by the words or action of the other person. It causes abasement of dignity, and with it the loss of one’s respect.
  • Showing humility: requires taking a mental step back and having the emotional fortitude to focus on the virtues of the other person. Acknowledging that the other person has not told you the ‘full story’ and may have struggles that they themselves are attempting to overcome.

So, each person in the situation can consider which quadrant they were at with their individual behaviour. And as relevant, apologise for knowingly or unknowingly making the other feel humiliated or for the lack of humility that one may have shown through one’s behaviour.


To be grateful that despite the blame, hurt or neglect, that communication is restored. How can both parties now ensure to stay in the ‘low humiliation/ high humility’- Concern quadrant. It is only in that quadrant that strong friendships/ relationships and trust can thrive.

Hope this matrix helps us to reflect on the possible reasons for misunderstandings in your interactions at work and in personal relationships.

What are some of the questions that this brings up for consideration? I would love to hear your thoughts and comments.

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