Misunderstanding in Communication: How to Prevent and Resolve it in Research

Feb 8, 2024

Misunderstanding in communication - while it can happen -  can undermine the whole research endeavor where accurate understanding is critical. However, we use several proven steps to keep misunderstandings or misinterpretations to a minimum, which we share in this article.

We explore the causes of misunderstandings in research, the difference between misunderstanding and misinterpretation, strategies that we use to avoid miscommunication and catch it when it happens, and how to resolve misunderstandings once detected.

How Misunderstandings in Research Happen

In an ideal world, communication in research would be perfectly clear and accurate - 100 percent of the time. However, in reality, misunderstandings in communication can happen for various reasons.

People come from diverse backgrounds with different lived experiences, assumptions, and communication styles. This diversity enhances research but also increases the potential for miscommunication.

Additionally, unconscious biases influence how people interpret others' messages, as our brains often take shortcuts, make assumptions, and fill in gaps without us realizing it.

Furthermore, emotions and stress can negatively impact communication skills for both researchers and participants, making it harder to convey or receive messages effectively when under pressure.

Other times, questions might be misunderstood. Even questions that seem straightforward to the researcher may seem vague to participants.

Finally, virtual communication can exacerbate these issues since nonverbal and contextual cues are more limited. While the extent varies, some level of misunderstanding or misinterpretation is likely given these factors. Proactively acknowledging this potential can help lead to more conscious, compassionate, and effective communication.

The Difference Between Misunderstanding and Misinterpretation

"Misinterpretation is something that happens in that moment; there's still something you can do about it," said Isabelle Landreville, chief insights seeker at Sylvestre & Co. "There's this notion of I want to prevent misunderstanding you."

Misunderstanding and misinterpretation overlap but have a few key distinctions:

  • Timing – Misunderstandings typically get discovered after the fact. You realize later that you didn’t grasp what someone meant earlier. Misinterpretation is more immediate – recognizing at the moment that you may not fully or accurately comprehend something.
  • Control – With misunderstanding, the opportunity to clarify is past. The conversation has usually moved on. Misinterpretation catches confusion before it solidifies, while clarification is still possible.
  • Blame – Misunderstandings often have a connotation of fault and failure. “I’m sorry I misunderstood that requirement.” Misinterpretation is more neutral and doesn’t assign errors. “Let me make sure I am properly interpreting this data.”
  • Damage – Letting a misunderstanding go unaddressed almost always causes problems later on. Research outcomes get skewed or rendered useless. Misinterpretations noticed “live” can be swiftly corrected before they undermine the research.  

In summary, misunderstanding in communication means the message was already missed, while misinterpretation in communication means catching potential confusion early and seeking clarity. Misinterpretation is clearly preferable since it prevents misunderstanding down the road. Successful researchers know the signs of misinterpretation and address them proactively.

Strategies To Minimize Miscommunication in Qualitative Research

Many of the best practices that we use when moderating qualitative research can lessen misunderstandings:

Set the Stage

To facilitate a productive discussion and avoid misunderstanding in communication, setting the stage properly by explaining the goals and ground rules upfront so all participants share the same context and expectations is important.

For example, encourage participants to ask clarifying questions, whether of you or each other, making it clear that no question is foolish or detracting. You might also consider using introductory or warm-up questions, allowing participants to speak casually. As they open up and build rapport and trust with each other and you, this will breed more accurate and authentic understanding throughout the discussion. These simple measures help ensure participants come away feeling heard, with a shared comprehension of the topics covered.

Craft Questions Strategically

When crafting research questions, it is important to prioritize precision over cleverness. Questions should use simple, conversational language that resonates best with participants. (Have you considered first drafts using AI?)

Additionally, questions should avoid being packed with assumptions or implied biases as much as possible. Stripping out such assumptions allows participants to share their perspectives openly.

Testing draft questions with unaffiliated people can also help researchers identify areas of vagueness or confusion before finalizing questions. Feedback can be used to maximize clarity. Asking precise, assumption-free, and externally validated questions helps elicit accurate insights from participants. This thoughtful construction of research questions, even if requiring more time upfront, leads to higher-quality findings.

Deepen Discussions

Deepen discussions by frequently asking "why" questions to uncover the reasoning behind answers and clarify the context. When participants use vague pronouns like "it," "that," or "this," follow up by asking who or what specifically they are referring to.

As the discussion progresses, summarize comments in the participants' own words, as this allows for any discrepancies to be quickly corrected if your understanding does not fully align with what was meant. Using techniques like asking probing questions, clarifying vague references, and summarizing can help deepen dialogues and get to the crux of the issue being discussed.

Read Between the Lines

When conducting qualitative research, it is important to read between the lines by noting signs of hesitation, doubt, or confusion, which may suggest misunderstanding or misalignment.

Observe body language and facial expressions as well, as perceived disengagement or difficulty answering questions can signal that the messaging has not been clear. After asking a question, pause instead of jumping in right away to allow participants time to process the inquiry and formulate an accurate response. Skilled moderators catch subtle verbal and non-verbal signs of fuzzy understanding happening in real time.

Despite best efforts, misinterpretation can occur, so watching for cues like hesitation, doubt, and disengagement allows issues to be clarified productively during the discussion. Taking a pause before responding gives participants the space to surface where communication has been ineffective.

Read next: Use these 7 key active listening skills now

Catch verbal cues

There are several verbal cues that can signal misinterpretation during qualitative research. Listen for answers that don’t directly match the question or go off-topic.

Frequent pauses, hesitations, and filler words like “um” also usually suggest some doubt or lack of clarity. Incomplete answers without elaboration despite probing often mean that further clarification is required.

Requests to repeat the question can indicate that the initial phrasing has not been understood. Additionally, "I don't know" responses frequently highlight that more context or reframing of the question itself is needed.

Noticing issues like mismatching responses, uncertainty, incomplete answers, or statements of not knowing allows moderators to clarify the question and get the discussion back on a productive track. Tuning in to these verbal cues is key to assessing when comprehension has broken down.

Non-verbal cues

In addition to verbal cues, researchers should watch for non-verbal signals suggesting questions have missed their mark. That can include furrowed brows, confused facial expressions, shrugging shoulders, averted eye contact, and closed body language. When such signs of uncertainty surface, gently probe to diagnose the disconnect.

For example, ask participants to rephrase the question in their own words to check shared understanding. If confusion persists, take responsibility for unclear phrasing by apologizing and restating the question more simply rather than embarrassing participants for not comprehending it initially.

Occasionally, missing one another's intent is expected, but multiple bewildered exchanges signal more fundamental issues with the questions or discussion direction. In these cases, temporarily sidelining problematic lines of inquiry for easier terrain can reset understanding. The concepts can be revisited later using simpler language and concrete examples to foster comprehension. Tuning into verbal and non-verbal cues allows moderators to clarify uncertain areas in real time.

Keep in mind that non-verbal cues differ between cultures.

Conclusion

Misunderstanding and misinterpretation in communication can happen in research, just like elsewhere. However, researchers committed to accuracy intentionally minimize them through farsighted design, engaged moderating, and continual improvement. They anticipate rather than react to confusion, valuing long-term coherence over short-term expedience.