By Sharon Drew Morgen


There’s been an age-old argument in the communication field: who’s at fault if a misunderstanding occurs – the Speaker communicating badly, or the Listener misunderstanding? Let’s look at some facts:

1. Speaking is an act of translation: putting into words what’s going on internally (the unspoken feelings, needs, thoughts) to enable others to understand our intent – choosing the most appropriate words for that particular listener in that particular situation to best convey what we wish to share. But the act of choosing the communication vehicles that will convey our intent is largely unconscious and may not render an accurate representation to our listener.

2. Listeners translate what they hear through a series of unconscious filters (biases, assumptions, triggers, habits, imperfect memory) formed over their lives by their:

  • world view,
  • beliefs,
  • similar situations,
  • historic exchanges with the same speaker,
  • biases on entering the conversation (like sellers listening exclusively for need).

To make things worse, sound enters our ears as electrical and chemical signals without meaning. These signals are matched for commonality with existing synapses that carry similar signals already residing in our brain. There are two problems with this: 1. the matched synapses most likely don’t have the exact same meaning as the incoming message; 2. our brains don’t account for any differential between the intended meaning and the matched message.

Indeed, the brain discards the differential between the two without telling us. So we might hear ABL when our communication partner said ABC! And because our brain only conveys ABL, we have no way of knowing it has discarded D, E, F, etc.! No wonder we think others aren’t hearing us, or are misunderstanding us purposefully!

Because our brain fails to tell us what it has misinterpreted, we’re left with no option but to believe that what we thought we heard is accurate.

What a listener “hears” is fraught with so much unconscious filtering that their ability to accurately hear what’s meant is untrustworthy, except, possibly, when speaking with someone known over time.

3. According to David Bellos in his excellent book Is That a Fish In Your Ear?, no sentence contains all of the information we need to translate it.

Think about all the impediments to hearing others accurately: even when we want to, even when we’re employing Active Listening, or taking notes, between words, language, synapses, signals, the odds are bad that we will accurately understand what someone is trying to tell us. So as a listener, I may not be accurately understanding what my communication partner intends to tell me and hear a message I’ve unintentionally misinterpreted.

As a speaker, I may not be using the best languaging patterns for my communication partner, and assume that because I believe my word choices best convey my message, that I should be understood.


Since communication involves a bewildering set of conscious and unconscious choices, accuracy becomes dependent upon each communication partner mitigating bias and disengaging from assumptions.

My book What? Did you really say what I think I heard? focuses on listening and accurately hearing what others intend to convey, starting with how we mishear, misunderstand, and otherwise misinterpret, where and how the gap between what’s said and what’s heard occurs and how to avoid misunderstanding. I also share a way to supercede old biases.

While researching and writing the book I realized that the responsibility for effective communication seems to be weighted in the court of the speaker. But if listeners don’t catch or prevent their biases or unhook from all subjective filters, the speaker’s words and intent are moot; they may be misconstrued regardless of their accuracy.

It’s an interesting problem: since they believe what they think they hear is accurate, the listener has no idea what the speaker intends to convey, there’s no way they can know if what they’re hearing – through the fog of synapses, neural pathways, misunderstandings and misinterpretations – is accurate. So the speaker is the one who must notice that the listener has misunderstood, and choose a different way to convey their intent.

So the answer is: the responsibility for an effective communication lie with the speaker.

That means, during any communication, a speaker must notice, through the words and verbalization of the listener’s response, as well as body language where possible, if the response is appropriate within the realm of their intent.

If it seems the listener might not have understood fully, the speaker can then just say, “Can you please tell me what you heard so I can say it better in case there’s a misinterpretation? It seems to me you might have misunderstood and I want our communication to be accurate.” That way you can keep a conversation on track and not assume the person just isn’t listening.

And, if as a listener you seek clarity for hearing and responding accurately, to make sure you heard and responded accurately, ask: “I’d like to make sure I heard you accurately. Do you mind telling me exactly what you just heard me say so I can make sure we’re on the same page going forward?”

Using either of these tactics, there’s a good chance all communication partners will go forward from the same understanding.

Here is our question: As listeners, are we translating accurately? Is it possible to avoid bias? As speakers, are we using our best language choices? As you can see above, the odds of communication partners accurately understanding the full extent of intended meaning in conversation is unlikely. The best we can do is figure out together how to manage the communication.


Sharon Drew Morgen is a breakthrough innovator and original thinker, having developed new paradigms in sales (inventor Buying Facilitation®, author NYTimes Business Bestseller Selling with IntegrityDirty Little Secrets: why buyers can’t buy and sellers can’t sell), listening/communication (What? Did you really say what I think I heard?), change management (The How of Change™), coaching, and leadership. Sharon Drew coaches and consults with companies seeking out of the box remedies for congruent, servant-leader-based change in leadership, healthcare, and sales. Her award-winning blog carries original articles with new thinking, weekly. She can be reached at

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January 27th, 2020

Posted In: Listening, News

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