Misunderstandings are a part of everybody’s lives. The fact that we have a power to communicate – also becomes our weakness at times. Because if we do not communicate enough or understand words differently, misunderstandings are born.
English which is the most widely spoken language across the world and has different meaning for different people. Same words mean different things, how can it not be a problem when the world is becoming more or less flat. When so many MNCs are working together in US, Europe, India, China, Japan etc. Since I have worked with Americans, Russians, Dutch and Chinese people in my experience, I have understood one thing that even when discussions happen and we might come out of the meeting feeling elated that we could get the point through – it is very possible that nothing was agreed upon in the meeting and we ended up playing around with words. This has happened numerous times and will keep happening.
I was 21 years old when I joined the corporate world as a Software Engineer in one of the huge MNC’s. It is an American organization and hence very influenced by American language. I came from North India and was working with South Indians for the first time – another reason for misunderstandings to crop up. I was working with a guy of about 7-8 years of experience and he was my technical lead. He is an extremely polite guy and speaks very softly.
When he started assigning work to me, it was easy to understand because I just had to do it. But when I started to encounter issues that I could not resolve, I would go to him with a problem. He always intended to tell me a few things to try out and then get back to him with a proposal as to what is the best solution. He did spend a lot of time initially with me to make me understand how to really try out things but later he expected me to be on my own (obviously!)
I found it strange but when the time came for me to try out things on my own, he typically used to say “Can we try this particular format of data?” or “Can we try to build the solution again?” etc. What he meant to say was that “Can you try this particular format of data and get back to me with results?” but he always used “We” instead of “You”. This was partly his politeness and partly American influence.
Every time he said “Can we try so and so?” – I heard “Let us find time, sit together and try this out”. Whereas he meant something completely different. Of course, I kept waiting for him to come to me so that “We” could try something out and he kept waiting for me to come with the results. Eventually, both of us got frustrated as expected. I was frustrated because I felt he wasn’t giving me enough freedom to try things on my own and he was frustrated because he felt that I wasn’t performing.
One fine day, my manager calls me asks me if I was facing any issues in understanding the product or code. I replied in negative and told him I am quite comfortable learning at this pace. Then he said why you aren’t coming up with solutions that was when I realized what I had misunderstood. “I” was supposed to do it not “We”. That was an eye opener. I told the misunderstanding to my manager who then called my lead and got the air cleared up. We all laughed at the silly misunderstanding. And I managed to work well with that guy finally.
This was though a light incident, it had the potential to become something huge. Both I and my lead were judging each other’s capabilities in our roles while misunderstanding the words.
Mostly this is the case, we don’t realize how much we understood the other person but we begin to judge instantly. It sometimes helps to ask a lot of questions (at the cost of sounding stupid) but it is needed just so everybody remains on the same page.
There used to be game that we used to play as kids. It was called “Pass the message”. We would have some long messages kept in a box. The first member was supposed to pick up a message and read it him/herself. Then he/she had to tell the message to his/her team member privately. This team member would then pass on the message to the next one and so on. Once the last person in the team gets the message, he was supposed to write it down. It was always a lot of fun to see how the final message was as compared to the original one. Mostly it would be highly manipulated and would mean something else completely. Every team member then had a chance to explain where the meaning of the message got lost. The team with the most similarity between final and original message would win.
Of course, this was supposed to be a fun game but it very clearly defines that misunderstandings are part and parcel of our lives. We cannot possibly communicate without misunderstanding each other. However, we can always try to reduce them by certain best practices. And most importantly, we must learn to forgive each other once the misunderstandings are cleared.