Original Publication September 2003, updated June 2013
Social conflicts often involve some misunderstanding. Parties in conflict communicate by what they say (or do not say) and how they behave toward each other. Even normal interaction may involve faulty communication, but conflict seems to worsen the problem. When two people are in conflict, they often make negative assumptions about "the other." Consequently, a statement that might have seemed innocuous when two parties were friends might seem hostile or threatening when the same parties are in conflict.
Sources of Misunderstanding
All communication has two parts: a sender and a receiver. The sender has a message he or she intends to transmit, and s/he puts it in words, which, to her/him, best reflect what s/he is thinking. But many things can intervene to prevent the intended message from being received accurately.
Frank Blechman states that surprises offer the intervenor a chance to re-assess the assumptions he/she has made about a conflict.
If the communication is verbal, tone of voice can influence interpretation. The boss's words, "Hey, I noticed you were taking an especially long break this morning," could be interpreted as an attack if she or he said that in a disapproving tone, while the comment might be seen as a minor reminder about office rules if it was said in a friendly way. If the employee has a health problem that sometimes requires long breaks, the comment might have even been a friendly inquiry about what was happening and whether the employee needed any help. Here, tone of voice as well as situational and relationship factors would influence the interpretation of the message.
Nonverbal cues also are important. Is the sender's posture open and friendly, or closed and cold? Is her facial expression friendly or accusatory? All of these factors influence how the same words will be received.
In addition to how the message is sent, many additional factors determine how the receiver interprets the message. All new information we learn is compared with the knowledge we already have. If it confirms what we already know, we will likely receive the new information accurately, though we may pay little attention to it. If it calls into question our previous assumptions or interpretation of the situation, we may distort it in our minds so that it is made to fit our world view, or we may dismiss the information as deceptive, misguided, or simply wrong.
If the message is ambiguous, the receiver is especially likely to clarify it for him or herself in a way which corresponds with his or her expectations. For example, if two people are involved in an escalated conflict, and they each assume that the other is going to be aggressive and hostile, then any ambiguous message will be interpreted as aggressive and hostile, even if it was not intended to be that way at all. Our expectations work as blinders or filters that distort what we see so that it fits our preconceived images of the world. (Conflict theorists call these filters "frames." See the essay on Frames, Framing, and Reframing for more information.)
An analogy can be made to an experiment that tested people's interpretation of visual cues. When people were given eyeglasses that turned the world upside-down, they had to suffer through with upside-down images for a week or two. After that, their brains learned to reverse the images, so they were seeing things right-side up again. The same thing happens when we hear something we "know" is wrong. Our brains "fix" it so that it appears as we expect it to.
Cultural differences increase the likelihood of misunderstanding as well. If people speak different languages, the danger of bad translation is obvious. But even if people speak the same language, they may communicate in different ways.
Common differences are between high-context and low-context communication. Low-context communication stands on its own; it does not require context or interpretation to give it meaning. High-context communication is more ambiguous. It requires background knowledge and understanding (context), in addition to the words themselves, for communication. While everyone uses both kinds of communication, Western cultures tend to use low-context communication more often, while Eastern and Latin American and African cultures tend to use high-context communication. If such differences are not understood and adjusted for, misunderstanding is almost inevitable.
Culture also affects communication by influencing the recipients' assumptions. As described above, our minds try to twist incoming information to make it fit in our worldview. Since different cultures have very different worldviews, cross-cultural communication is especially likely to change meaning between sender and receiver, as the sender may have a very different worldview from the receiver.
Given our tendency to hear what we expect to hear, it is very easy for people in conflict to misunderstand each other. Communication is already likely to be strained, and people will often want to hide the truth to some extent. Thus the potential for misperception and misunderstanding is high, which can make conflict management or resolution more difficult.
How to Avoid Misunderstanding
In conflict situations, avoiding misunderstanding takes a lot of effort. Roger Fisher and William Ury list four skills that can improve communication in conflict situations.
- The first is active listening. The goal of active listening, they say, is to understand your opponent as well as you understand yourself. Pay close attention to what the other side is saying. Ask the opponent to clarify or repeat anything that is unclear or seems unreasonable (maybe it isn't, but you are interpreting it wrong). Attempt to repeat their case, as they have presented it, back to them. This shows that you are listening (which suggests that you care what they have to say) and that you understand what they have said. It does not indicate that you agree with what they said, nor do you have to. You just need to indicate that you do understand them. 
- Fisher and Ury's second rule is to speak directly to your opponent. This is not considered appropriate in some cultures, but when permitted, it helps to increase understanding. Avoid being distracted by others, or by other things going on in the same room. Focus on what you have to say, and on saying it in a way that your opponent can understand.
- Their third rule is to speak about yourself, not about your opponent. Describe your own feelings and perceptions, rather than focusing on your opponent's motives, misdeeds, or failings. By saying, "I felt let down," rather than "You broke your promise," you will convey the same information, in a way that does not provoke a defensive or hostile reaction from your opponent. This is often referred to as using "I-statements" or "I-messages," rather than "you-messages." You-messages suggest blame, and encourage the recipient to deny wrongdoing or to blame in return. I-messages simply state a problem, without blaming someone for it. This makes it easier for the other side to help solve the problem, without having to admit they were wrong.
- Fisher and Ury's fourth rule is "speak for a purpose." Too much communication can be counterproductive, they warn. Before you make a significant statement, pause and consider what you want to communicate, why you want to communicate that, and how you can do it in the clearest possible way.
Other rules might be added to these four. One is to avoid inflammatory language much as possible. Inflammatory language just increases hostility and defensiveness; it seldom convinces people that the speaker is right. (Actually, it usually does just the opposite.) Although inflammatory remarks can arouse people's interest in a conflict and generate support for one's own side, that support often comes at the cost of general conflict escalation. Making one's point effectively without inflammatory statements is a better option.
Likewise, all opponents should be treated with respect. It doesn't help a conflict situation to treat people disrespectfully; it just makes them angry and less likely to listen to you, understand you, or do what you want. No matter what you think of another person, if they are treated with respect and dignity -- even if you think they do not deserve it -- communication will be much more successful, and the conflict will be more easily managed or resolved. Engaging in deep conversations (through problem-solving workshops or dialogues) can also reduce misunderstanding by improving relationships, by providing more context to communication, and by breaking down stereotypes that contribute to negative characterizations or worldviews. The more effort one makes to understand the person sending the message, the more likely the message will be understood correctly.
 Edward T. Hall, Beyond Culture. (New York: Anchor/Doubleday, 1971)
 We have more detail on active listening on this website in an article called empathic listening--because the author argued that empathy and listening were too closely linked to write two different articles--so he combined them into one.
Use the following to cite this article:
Burgess, Heidi. "Misunderstandings." Beyond Intractability. Eds. Guy Burgess and Heidi Burgess. Conflict Information Consortium, University of Colorado, Boulder. Posted: September 2003 <http://www.beyondintractability.org/essay/misunderstandings>.