The Simple Question You Can Ask to Avoid Miscommunication

The Simple Question You Can Ask to Avoid Miscommunication

By Laura Gallaher, PhD, LHEP™

Summary Points:

  1. Communication is the most commonly reported problem in organizations
  2. Sometimes our brain works against us, when it’s trying its best to help
  3. Creating space for yourself to understand somebody’s words often helps them understand their own perspective even more

read time: 5 minutes 


As a consultant, when I ask people how their organization could be more effective, the most common answer – paraphrased – is: “We just need to communicate better.”

I believe that the vast majority of unhealthy conflict, disappointment, and frustration results from miscommunication.

Well, fabulous…nothing earth-shattering here…yet.


I could tell you that it’s that we don’t listen as well as we could, or we are multi-tasking, or we just choose to ignore each other. All of that is true, but I would say that one of the most innocuous reasons is that our brain is trying (and often failing) to help us out.

Our brain is a gap-filling machine. Our eyes, even when open and not blinking, do not see 100% of the time. But these gaps in our vision are undetected by us because our brain fills in the gaps so effectively that we appear to see continuously.

It’s a survival mechanism; our brains are looking to constantly create and take meaning from the world around us. This is how it works to keep us safe.

But sometimes, the “gap-filling” is actually getting in your way, instead of helping you.


sometimes our brain works against us


I remember several years ago, I was facilitating a workshop inside NASA where senior leaders would come and speak to the participants about their own careers and their own reactions to change. The workshop was designed to help employees cope with massive shifts to the mission of the Agency and the Space Center and hearing the stories from other leaders was designed to create insight and inspire.

After one of the leaders talked about her story, I asked the participants for their reactions (part of that whole – help them generate insights for themselves). One of them said, with a deep, ponderous look on her face – “It was really interesting…”

And I jumped in, “Yeah! Isn’t it? Because….[blah, blah, blah]…”

Then, my gracious co-facilitator turned back to the participant and said, “What was interesting about it to you?”

Jeez. How embarrassing. I totally assumed that what she found interesting was what I found interesting.

Now, this is an extreme example of filling in the gaps, but it’s the kind of thing we do every day.

Now, I’ve learned, when somebody says that something is “interesting,” I immediately ask, “What was interesting about it to you?” In fact, people who know me know that the moment they say something is interesting, that I will ask that question – and they’ve learned to be prepared for it. 😉


language, using language to serve you

Most simply, just take the extra moment to get clear.

What might stop you from doing this? You could tell yourself that it’s just that you’re so busy. But I would argue that it’s that you THINK you actually understand.

You’re all, “I know EXACTLY what you’re talking about – I GOT you!”   Because your brain is actively working to predict and decipher meaning that’s attached to things you already know.

So you don’t even realize that there is anything to clarify.


I genuinely believe that nearly all of our communication would be so much more effective if we made the time to ask, “What do you mean when you say ‘X’?”

I once had somebody say to me: “People don’t like it when you ask them what they mean when they say things.”

Even now, as I type that, I feel my face tighten up in a confused cringe – brow furrowed, frowning a little. “What?”

People don’t like it when you ask them what they mean when they say things.


Ok, so maybe….to the extent that somebody could interpret my

“When you say ‘X,’ what do you mean?”


“You’re not communicating clearly”

–- I could understand some people could think I was criticizing them.

The reality is, though, I am not being critical at all – I simply want to understand – fully.

Like I said, I think most conflict is a result of miscommunication and misunderstanding.


Sometimes, when I ask people

“What do you mean when you say ‘X’?”

They realize…that they aren’t completely clear about what they mean…at least not consciously. And when I create the space for myself to get clear, I also create space for them to get clear.


It’s not a new concept or idea – whether it is Covey’s Seek First to Understand, then to be Understood, or Chris Argyris’s “advocacy/inquiry  ” (i.e., shift the proportion of your communication such that you are asking questions more and advocating for your own perspective less) – it’s all good stuff.

Thank your brain for all it does to help you with its short-cuts, and then kindly quiet down those short-cuts (i.e., “stories”) and take a moment to ask somebody what they truly mean. Then paraphrase back to the communicator – see if you really “get it.”

Slowing down like this will improve your communication right away – and will save you a ton of time in the long-run. An excellent example of the value of slowing down to speed up.

Also published on Medium.

Showing 4 comments
  • Matt

    Sigh (based on that reading). You should really be a conservative. You’re smart enough for it. Most of us already realize these things since our humanity surpasses our ideology. (Granted, ideological, unthinking social conservatives aren’t like this, but their ideas require governments whose size aren’t conservative.)

    • Laura Gallaher

      Hi Matt – I’m not a fan of “shoulds” – especially somebody else telling me what they think I “should” do or be (I think that is a common experience).

      I also find that labels are much less helpful than people realize. Labels can limit us (self-limiting beliefs), and labeling others often serves only to divide….it can remove a natural curiosity to get to know each individual person for who they are.

      It is for this reason I typically avoid conversations around politics in general. However, when I meet a group of politicians who is genuinely excited about learning how to collaborate in a meaningful way to generate solutions that we believe can be more and more effective – I will be happy to help them, if they would like my help. 🙂

  • Wendy Gallaher

    Interesting. (hehe, couldn’t resist).

    I like what you said about finding out what is “interesting” to the other person, and not assume that what they found interesting was the same as what I did.

  • Rob G

    Good one Doc! I believe I will share it with the NASA ODEO team.

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