Original Publication September 2003, updated June 2013 by Heidi Burgess. Current Implications added August 2017.
Here is a scene with which we are all familiar: Alex says or does something that Bob interprets as an insult or an attack. Bob retaliates in words or action. Alex, having meant no harm in the first place, now sees Bob's actions or words as an unprovoked attack. The situation can quickly escalate even though there was no real reason for a fight to begin in the first place. What has happened here is not a failure to communicate, but a failure to understand communication. More often than not, that is what lies at the root of conflicts, although in intractable conflicts there may be many other sources of conflict as well.
Of course, misunderstanding of ideas or intent can also occur when there is an absence of communication between two groups. When two parties are not speaking, there is no way to clarify positions, intentions, or past actions; rumors can spread unchecked. Sometimes both parties make a concerted effort to communicate as clearly as possible, but cultural differences or language barriers obstruct clear understanding.
Even within a cultural group, misunderstandings can arise because of different personal communication styles. One person will ask a lot of questions to show interest, while another person will find that to be disrespectful. Men and women, in particular, are thought to have different styles. Linguist Deborah Tannen notes that, for women, "talk creates intimacy... [b]ut men live in a hierarchical world, where talk maintains independence and status." Her research has also shown that, when speaking, women tend to face each other and look each other in the eye, while men prefer to sit at angles and look elsewhere in the room. Women also express more agreement and sympathy with one another's problems, while men will dismiss each other's problems. Both sets of responses are meant to reassure, but do not have that effect when used with the opposite gender. For example, women often become angry if a man dismisses their problem.
Fortunately, breakdowns in communication are usually repairable. Misunderstandings can be explained, languages can be translated, relationships can be restored (though sometimes this takes great effort over a long period of time), rumors can be controlled, and escalation limited -- all through clear, verbal communication, i.e. talking. Despite common admonishments to "improve communication skills," the majority of people are already very sophisticated at sending and interpreting messages. The improvement most people need is more akin to a concert pianist fine-tuning a particular technique than to a 10-year-old student heading off for her weekly piano lesson.
A popular misconception about communication is what Michael Reddy calls "the conduit metaphor." This is the belief that language is like the postal service, that it can transfer packages (ideas) from person to person without corruption of the original message: person A puts his thought or feelings into words and "gives" or "sends" these words to B, who "extracts" or unpacks the message. The danger of this metaphor is that it leads one to believe that what one intends to say is, indeed, what is heard by the listener. Misunderstandings are therefore unexpected and often unrecognized. Rather, the assumption is made that the receiver is either stupid or malicious for responding as they did--even though their response would be seen as reasonable, if the speaker understands the way the listener understood the original message.
However, no such unfiltered exchange actually takes place. A more accurate description is that the speaker attempts to code ideas, feelings, and images with words. Those words are transmitted to the listener who then matches them with his/her own experiences. So the likelihood of them both interpreting the information the same way is pretty low--particularly if emotions are involved or the topics are in any way ambiguous. For example, a speakers might talk about how they "succeeded" at doing an assigned task. However, what the speakers considers "success" may not necessarily match the listener's definition. Words correspond to different ideas and feelings for different people, and it can take multiple attempts before an idea has been understood satisfactorily. The more cultural differences there are between speakers, the more frequently they will have to stop and work out differences of meaning.
The "conduit metaphor" highlights two important aspects of language: metaphor and semantics. Semantics refers to the specific meanings of words, as well as the value they carry beyond their definition. For example, one could call a woman, a "lady," "girl," "ma'am," "miss" or any of dozens of synonymous terms. The difference between these terms, and the reason the addressee will prefer some of them and be offended by others, is based on the value she places on each definition.
"I never saw an instance of one or two disputants convincing the other by argument." -- Thomas Jefferson
"Discussion is an exchange of knowledge; argument an exchange of emotion." -- Robert Quillen
A clear understanding of semantics is crucial to preventing misunderstandings. Arguments frequently occur when two people think they are talking about the same thing, but really are just using the same word for two different ideas or things. An exaggerated example of this would be a misunderstanding over the question "What state was he in?" where one person is talking about a state of mind and the other about a political region. Hopefully that is a misunderstanding that can be cleared up quickly, but for a few moments both parties are likely to be confused and possibly think the other is crazy.
A subtler example would be an argument over the definition of the word "respect." One person may understand "respect" to signify a feeling, while another sees it as an attitude demonstrated through actions. Though Andrew feels respect for Betty, Betty is angry that Andrew did not demonstrate this respect through actions. Andrew, on the other hand, is convinced he was not at fault because he does (or did) genuinely feel respect for Betty. This type of argument can drag on indefinitely with both sides vehemently defending themselves and never figuring out that the basic problem is that they are interpreting the word "respect" differently or that Betty needs something that Andrew didn't give her, though he might, if he understand what her need actually was.
Metaphor is one of the most powerful linguistic devices. Metaphor expands understanding by relating the unknown to the familiar. Complex or unfamiliar ideas, systems, or relationships are often explained by comparison to something already well known. The heart, for example, is a complex muscle performing very specialized tasks, but it is easier to understand its function by thinking of it as a familiar mechanical device such as a pump. Some cognitive scientists hypothesize that much human knowledge is structured with metaphor. The hidden danger of these linguistic devices is that, while creating associations of function or meaning ("the heart is like a pump"), they also transmit value judgments ("a pump is an ugly utilitarian tool"). Sometimes a metaphor is so subtle or commonly used that one is unaware it is there. For example, to "waste time" is a common English phrase, but how does one actually waste time? It is impossible, unless we assume that time, like apples (or money!), is a physical commodity. For most Americans, time is indeed thought of as a commodity that can be measured out, spent, wasted, and valued. This conception of time becomes problematic when an American interacts with someone from a culture for whom time is not a commodity.
A final misleading idea about language is the belief that words are harmless. "Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me," is a children's rhyme in the United States. Yet words can hurt people very badly. A biting criticism or personal attack can stay vivid in one's memory for years. Some words can provoke a physical response; a punch in the face perhaps. The words themselves may seem weightless, but they can bring about concrete reactions and should be used with care.
The conflict resolution field specializes in helping people communicate more effectively and avoid some of the pitfalls listed above. Two of the most common techniques taught are active listening, or empathic listening as we call it here , and the use of "I-messages" instead of "you-messages." Both of these focus on trying to communicate without placing blame and really trying to hear and understand what the other person is saying. When people are in conflict, making the extra effort to improve communication between the disputants is often helpful in reducing the intensity of the conflict, even if the conflict cannot be that easily resolved.
Though this essay was written 14 years ago, nothing has changed. The same things that caused conflict communication to go awry then, do so now. But now such problems are particularly evident in the political conflicts roiling in the United States.
I recently went to my son's wedding. There were some family members on one side of the U.S. political divide; others on the opposite. The unspoken rule was "don't talk politics!" The fear was great that misunderstandings would quickly escalate and what was supposed to be a joyous occasion would become a conflict zone.
In the context of a wedding, this probably made sense. But the same will be true between neighbors all the time, and between family members at holidays--and sometimes all the time.
If we can't talk about things that we care deeply about, how are we ever going to be able to resolve our differences? And if we can't resolve our differences, how can we live together? When the differences are deep enough, the result --in families--is estrangement and/or divorce. But we can't do that at the community or national level! We HAVE to learn to live together, and to do that we have to learn to talk to each other without starting a war!
Learning effective conflict communication skills is becoming increasingly important for our personal lives and for the lives of our communities, societies and cultures.
Heidi Burgess, May 2017.
 Tannen, Deborah. "Sex, Lies and Conversation; Why Is It So Hard for Men and Women to Talk to Each Other?" The Washington Post. 24 June 1990.
 Reddy, Michael. "The Conduit Metaphor -- A Case of Frame Conflict in our Language about Language." Metaphor and Thought. Ed. Andrew Ortony, Cambridge, 1979.
 We use the term "empathic listening" in BI because having and exhibiting empathy is an integral part of listening. When the BI editors asked Richard Salem to write two articles for BI--one on "listening" and the other on "empathy," he responded that they would greatly overlap. We thus decided to combine them into one and call it "empathic listening."
Use the following to cite this article:
Akin, Jennifer. "Interpersonal / Small-Scale Communication." Beyond Intractability. Eds. Guy Burgess and Heidi Burgess. Conflict Information Consortium, University of Colorado, Boulder. Posted: September 2003 <http://www.beyondintractability.org/essay/interpersonal-communication>.