Complexity in communicating

May 12, 2022

Communicating and interacting with others is a funny thing. Even when we speak the same language, communicating is a hot bed for confusion and misunderstanding. What I write down here will likely be interpreted in slightly, and maybe in some cases majorly, different ways to my original intentions. However, communicating and understanding one another is fundamentally important to our personal, social, and economic lives. 

This blog was partly inspired by the podcast Why Conversations Go Wrong (which I highly recommend). In it, Deborah Tannen, a Professor of Linguistics, discusses some of the reasons why we get so confused. Tannen explains that we each have a learnt, automatic conversational style which affects conversation on a ‘meta’ level. For example, different people have different expectations about how long a pause between each conversation point should be. This could change one’s experience of talking to someone who is perceived to be constantly interrupting them versus not engaging enough. It also influences preferences for speaking more directly or indirectly – where meaning often gets lost. And don’t get me started on how often we talk in metaphors and idioms (by which I mean, do get me started, it’s a very interesting topic).

Other processes might be at play too. Signal amplification bias, for example, refers to when people incorrectly assume that what they have communicated has been fully understood by the other person (Vorauer & Sakamoto, 2006). This especially happens in new situations, where novelty causes someone to experience heightened self-awareness and so is more likely to perceive that the person they are talking to is similarly aware of these feelings. This can lead to hindered relationships wherein the correct message is not communicated, and so expected feedback is not given.

Many many factors influence how we might interpret and understand events: such as age, gender, culture, mood, stereotypes, personal experiences, cognitive abilities, and physical characteristics (a small child is going to experience a large supermarket much differently to a tall adult). Even if we agree on a dictionary definition, our perceptions around what words mean in practice can be very different. For example, one person’s perception of what is considered an expensive meal will be very different to another. A teenager’s perception of what constitutes a clean room may be very different to their caregiver’s. The additional reliance on technology has made it even more tricky to communicate, without visual cues and voice tones we’re left guessing whether an exclamation mark means someone is excited, surprised, angry, or friendly! (Ferrazzi, 2013). My personal favourite emoji is 😬 – what people actually think of me when I send it, maybe I’d rather not know.

Different perceptions and interpretations can not only be confusing, but it can also be dangerous. For example, it can lead to inappropriate or incorrect medical care when patient and health professional do not understand each other (Iezzoni et al., 2004). Even in the highly standardised industry of aviation, accidents are still often attributed to miscommunication (Molesworth & Estival, 2015). It is therefore important to be humble and responsible with the way we communicate and listen.

We at the Cynefin Co are particularly aware of the efforts it takes in communicating. We are a multi-cultural, multi-disciplinary team, working with an even wider range of clients and collaborators, on multiple virtual and in-person platforms. A standard team meeting consists of finding out what is happening in Cape Town, Greece, Denmark, Wales, Netherlands, Singapore…The complexity of language, accents, and understandings is never far from our minds.

The SenseMaker® tool helps to bring alive these differences, to help us not make assumptions about how people are feeling and experiencing their environment but for everyone to express and explain themselves in their own (written or recorded) words and then to further self-identity how their stories fit into themes. However, it is no magic bullet. So, take care when creating significations and analysing patterns, there’s always room for more perspectives.

Some thoughts on collaborating on design and analysis

  •  Let the audience of your SenseMaker® have input in the design of your signifiers. Are you capturing relevant, core concepts?
  •  Running a pilot version of your SenseMaker® is key. What language and length is appropriate?
  • Take the time to engage with participants and get buy-in. Perhaps a workshop to help explain and give a chance to practice. Or maybe a short video that explains what needs to be done and how they benefit. 
  • Analyse with empathy. The patterns and stories are just the start, it is everyone’s input on it that then helps it grow.

Ask us about future Narrative Basecamps for a deeper dive into language and complexity.

Banner image by cdd20 on Top image by Mark König on

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About the Cynefin Company

The Cynefin Company (formerly known as Cognitive Edge) was founded in 2005 by Dave Snowden. We believe in praxis and focus on building methods, tools and capability that apply the wisdom from Complex Adaptive Systems theory and other scientific disciplines in social systems. We are the world leader in developing management approaches (in society, government and industry) that empower organisations to absorb uncertainty, detect weak signals to enable sense-making in complex systems, act on the rich data, create resilience and, ultimately, thrive in a complex world.

Cognitive Edge Ltd. & Cognitive Edge Pte. trading as The Cynefin Company and The Cynefin Centre.


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