Whatever can be misunderstood, will be misunderstood

It is an unfortunate truth that whatever can be misunderstood, will be misunderstood.

As inevitable as death and taxes, this Murphy’s Law of communication is especially true when the message is unwelcome. Whoever is in charge of sayings probably needs to change Bullock’s famous quote to include this:

’Tis impossible to be sure of any thing but Death and Taxes and Misunderstandings

Leaders – especially when trying to change something (because pretty much all change is unwelcome for at least some of the people some of the time) – must factor this into their thinking.

We must assume that, whether by genuine accident or convenient design, even our most-beautifully crafted and benevolent utterances will be misunderstood.

Misunderstandings might be genuine, but might just as easily be a convenient excuse for non-compliance … you know the sort: “I didn’t complete the forms for the new process because I didn’t really understand what we were supposed to do”


This may have begun with a kernel of genuine misunderstanding, but then instead of investigating or JUST ASKING, the task is abandoned and the convenience of misunderstanding employed as an excuse instead.

If cleverly executed, the convenient misunderstanding appears humble (“It might be me being a bit thick but …”), but it neatly points a finger of implied blame back at the communicator for not communicating properly.

I always want to say “you were perfectly intelligent the other day, what happened …?” but such sarcasm, whilst satisfying for a second or two, would be unprofessional and exactly the opposite of the sort of person I want to be.

And it’s a bit unfair.

People might resort to the misunderstanding excuse a little too handily sometimes, but then it’s also true that people’s lives are crammed full of stuff already and new messages and new processes are distractions that will be ignored if they can be ignored.

I get that, and I also get that I am guilty of under-communication.

I assume that people will just get the message the second I utter it, that they’ll buy in to my thinking because it’s logical and clearly I am right, and anyway, if they need anything else, they’ll just ask for it because they’ll be just as keen as I am to make it all click … it doesn’t work like that though …

Even convenient misunderstandings are (usually) the fruit of a genuine lack of understanding + a lack of time to engage properly on the new thing + lack of motivation to make the effort because they don’t see the importance (it might be my priority, but it’s not their priority), and so even if the misunderstanding is a bit of an excuse, it is usually no biggie, nothing malevolent about it … so we should grit our teeth and treat it as genuine … except sometimes that’s quite hard to do …

I once heard a response to a new leader’s vision (“I want us to be the best in our industry!”) as criticism (“So what are we doing so badly now?”), or the seemingly reasonable plea to consider a business relocation to lower costs and therefore avoid job cuts as being a way to blame the workers for the whole thing (“Oh! So it’s our fault we have to move!”) … it’s hard to read these kinds of misunderstandings as anything other than wilful malevolence, but framing it that way closes down our options, and so if we get this kind of response, we should consider (1) is our communication a bit careless, and (2) is there trust and goodwill in this relationship?

The first is fairly easy to fix, the second takes time and effort, but is a prerequisite if we want to diminish the chances of misunderstandings.

People hear the messenger as much as the message, and if they don’t know you or have reason to doubt your sincerity, whatever you say is going to land like a lead balloon.

This means that the first step in minimizing the impact of Murphy’s Law of Communication is to work on credibility and trust … otherwise misunderstandings will be as certain as death and taxes.

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