THE MYTH OF COMPREHENSION

Updated: Aug 29, 2019

Are We Speaking the Same Language?



no attribution required - John Hain (cc)

My son and I just returned from about a month in Italy. We had a minor grasp on the language and a couple of helpful translation apps to get us through the language challenges. "I understand" in Italian is "capisco". "I comprehend" is "comprendo". I spent most of the trip saying "Io comprendo" to indicate that I understood what I was being told when sometimes I had only an inkling of what the person speaking Italian was trying to tell me. If I thought I got the gist, I would say "Io comprendo," at times just to end the stress of trying to fully understand what they were trying to say. Looking back I wonder if my use of "Io comprendo" was both redundant since the "Io" is not needed and weirdly robotic as in, "I comprehend, Will Robinson!" Recognizing this, I have to wonder:


How many times do we have conversations in our language yet do not truly understand the other person's meaning?

We Understand What We Think We Hear

“I know you think you understand what you thought I said but I'm not sure you realize that what you heard is not what I meant." Alan Greenspan

Working in the world of health care administration and project management I have the pleasure of attending many meetings. There are two things I have noticed over the years. One is that ideas percolate in the air above the meeting in what I conceive as a "group mind." But this is for a future post. The second thing I've noticed is that people hear what they are able to hear. Period. Every word is being deciphered internally and rapidly by each listener and filtered through their own world view, values, and agenda. A question can be asked clearly by the chair and the answer from an attendee though potentially captivating may have nothing to do with the question asked. I can't tell you how many times I've watched a meeting go completely off track into the weeds when someone does not answer the question asked.


Does Our Communication Make Sense? Maybe Not.


Dr. Robert Bjork in his UCLA Faculty Research Lecture called How We Learn versus How We Think We Learn states that prevailing attitudes, assumptions and beliefs inhibit effective learning. His final point was that we are all vulnerable to the "curse of knowledge" which is "over estimating how much what we are saying that our students, friends and colleagues actually understand". He says that what is happening in our heads when we are teaching or talking is not something we can be sure is transferring to the mind of the listener. In fact, he presents research that shows that in many cases what is received is not understood to the degree the sender thinks it is. The reasons for this must be multi-fold. For example, are the listeners listening to understand, or are they thinking about their own next response? Are students taking notes and so losing parts of the lecture? Are they only able to assign meaning to those pieces of information that spur a recognition based on something they already know?

What Can We Do?

"Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply." --Stephen R. Covey

What if part of a typical education was learning how to listen? What if active listening skills were taught, demonstrated, and practiced in elementary school? How do you find yourself challenged when listening and what have you tried to improve your comprehension? As a speaker, what do you do to determine whether or not your listeners understand you?



© 2019 by Lisa Holloway

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