Ambiguity

What is obscured ?

I live high enough up on the 10th floor of my apartment building that my view is usually clear even when there is fog.  I can see the tops of trees and buildings but not everything. The mist turns to blue sky and clarity above several ambiguous shapes on the ground.  In nature, the moisture of water droplets dissipate with the warmth of the sun. But the ambiguity and fog of misunderstood words, ideas, and intentions are harder to dissipate…

Ambiguity in Communication

Some people associate the word ambiguity with that which is ‘unknown’ or ‘unknowable’. Others associate the word with ‘double meanings’ or unclear meanings. Let’s explore some examples of ambiguities like these in communication.

Can I hear what you are saying?

This may sound obvious, the first step in communication after one person says something is the ‘intake’ and for that to happen well, the listener has to hear all the words as they were spoken or intended. Here’s a story from my past.

When my grandfather accompanied my family on an international trip – a first for us together – we became stranded for hours on an Indian country road with a broken down car.  As we waited for hours for help, my grandfather engaged the youth that were walking alongside the road in conversation. He was intent on helping them with their English. That day in India – when I was just 12 years old, I stood nearby watching him, and wondered why he worked so hard to get his roadside ‘students’ to pronounce each word very clearly, over and over.  It wasn’t until years later that I understood that the first step in ensuring understanding is that you have to have ‘heard’ the words accurately. 

Jerry Weinberg, one of my mentors on topics of interpersonal communication, spoke in a very soft voice which made it hard for me to hear him in a big conference room. Ambient noise, distance between people, the speaker’s position and speed all have an impact on what you hear. I sometimes cannot understand the words of native English speakers because of varying accents. You can be a guru in communication, and still have difficulty at this step, whether listening or speaking.

Tuning In To the Person you are Speaking To

To go along with speaking and enunciating clearly is the idea of tuning in to your audience. If you are the speaker, are you seeking to notice that folks listening to you are paying attention to what you are saying? Are they engaged?  Virginia Satir, a famous family therapist, liked to point out that when a child is being spoken to by a tall parent, they may feel very intimidated by their relative size. I wish I had known to kneel down or set my kids on a chair or table when I told them important things. That way, I would have more likely seen their expression, and held their attention – showing them the importance of what I was saying.

No matter how old your audience, knowing that they appear to be responding in some fashion is key to knowing if they’ve gotten what you’ve said.  It is your job to make sure your words are clearly spoken and your listeners are engaged. Alan Alda, in his post acting career, has helped thousands of scientists and engineers to communicate well by learning to attend to their audience. What a worthy cause.

Do I understand what you said in the same way you intended?

The next issue is that one person’s meaning can be different from what the message sender intended to convey. Here are a few examples:

“Can you please trim the tree?” uttered at Christmas time might mean decorating the tree, but it could mean you are being asked to cut off some of the branches. 

When I was thrown into a French school in Burundi in 1974 with just a few weeks of French tutoring behind me – I remember the teacher asking if anyone knew anything about ‘lion’.  We had just driven through France prior to catching our flights to our new home, and I remembered having travelled through the city called ‘Lyon’ (a homonym to the animal: lion).  I blurted out “It is a city” in French.   Apparently I had missed some context, and the class burst out laughing. The instructor started drawing a lion on the chalkboard. How embarrassing!  And I still remember this to this day. Some learning has to happen via mishaps – the question is how do we get better at communicating so as to minimize the damage!

Know your audience, choose your words wisely, provide supporting context, speak clearly and you’ll find these improvements take you a long way.

Tone of voice and gesture

Another area of ambiguity in communication arises because a person’s words are mismatched to other aspects of their communication. 

If someone says: “Did you eat the rest of the cookies?” in a curious or neutral tone, this won’t likely cause defensiveness. Uttered in a suspicious, accusatory or angry tone, it will.  Most people remember the tone over the content. Stand in front of a mirror and pretend the last cookie is gone.  Practice asking this question with angry, suspicious, curious, and neutral tones.  Practice emphasizing different words as you do so. 

A sulking posture and lowered head accompanied by a ‘Yes, I’ll do it” with ‘air quotes’ around the ‘do it’ might mean your child or co-worker isn’t quite aligned with the task assignment. Spend some time noticing the gestures other people use.  First do you know what the gesture means? Is there a mismatch between the message and their hand gestures or posture?

When you notice a mismatch, where do you store that information? How does it affect you? What, if anything, do you do about it? I’ll never forget the IBM manager who was asking his teams to ‘follow the process’, but he was carrying a gun mounted to a portable piece of wood and was waving it around the all-hands meeting. Needless to say, that may have ‘matched’ what he intended, but I was not going to stick around to find out. I soon left.

Must I Read Your Mind (or How Did You Forget to Mention …) ?

Sometimes communication fails because of what’s not said or conveyed.

“Let’s watch a movie” as a suggestion is harmless (it seems), but if you, the recipient, are currently heads down studying, wound up about some deadlines, or needing some quiet time, you might expect that your partner should know movies are the farthest thing on your mind. This suggestion may trigger you to blurt out something you’ll regret, such as: ‘Are you kidding, you should know I have exams tomorrow – can’t you see I’m studying?’ This will only thicken the fog in your communication, because you never actually told your partner about the exam, the deadline, or your need for quiet.  This sort of situation happens often with people who are close to each other. They subconsciously expect their partners to have read their minds – under the illusion they had already communicated their needs.

Ambiguity frequently occurs where people’s tasks or even their roles and expectations are not well communicated. ‘I thought you were testing that feature’ or ‘I thought you were buying those groceries’. These can often be alleviated by frequently sharing intentions and checking in with each other.

If you’re interested in exploring better ways of communicating, whether for you or for your team, you can schedule a free 1/2 hour time slot for exploration here or simply send me an email me at andrea@connections-at-work.com.

Explore posts in the same categories: Communication, Dialogue, Listening, Personal Growth, Satir, Systemic Modeling, Weinberg

2 Comments on “Ambiguity”

  1. Brian Dooley Says:

    Andrea, I always enjoy your writing!

    On Sat, Nov 21, 2020, 3:55 PM Adaptive Collaboration wrote:

    > Andrea Chiou posted: ” What is obscured ? I live high enough up on the > 10th floor of my apartment building that my view is usually clear even when > there is fog. I can see the tops of trees and buildings but not > everything. The mist turns to blue sky and clarity above se” >

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Basic Organization Says:

    I remember observing my 3rd grader’s very skilled teacher. I was in the classroom volunteering when the tiny woman (there were kids in the class taller than her) stood in front of the class and spoke very calmly and quietly to the chaos that was going on around her. She understood how to communicate with authority to everyone in the room. Within a few seconds, she had everyone listening to what she said. It was a great lesson for me. You don’t always have to be the loudest one in the room to be heard.

    Like


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: