On being understood.

One of the things I am most interested in is being understood i.e. communicating ideas in a way that their can be no misunderstanding. When you are in a conversation with someone and you have explained something and they reply, “I don’t understand” or “what do you mean?” you have not communicated your ideas clearly or in a way that allows people to take in all of the information you are giving them. This often happens when someone who has a lot of knowledge about a subject explains concepts to people who do not have their same level of knowledge. Often the knowledgeable person will use terminology that best describes what they are talking about but not what is best understood by the people they are talking to. For example, you may have never been exposed to philosophical concepts before and ask someone who has a degree in philosophy to explain something to you and they start by saying “Well, there is a lot of neurophysiological research to support epiphenomenalism…”. You might leave the conversation more confused than before you started it despite having just spoken to a professional in that area. One reason this happens is because the jargon used by people who are educated in an area often differs from what the average person understands. People who have not been exposed to these ideas will need simpler language and more explanation. We could rephrase that earlier sentence and say “Well, there is a lot of scientific research on the brain that shows that physical events, such as muscle contractions, are caused by mental events like thought, consciousness and cognition”. Don’t assume people know what you know.


Another technique to help ourselves speak clearer is to use the simplest explanation and discard wasteful or unnecessary words. In philosophy this is called Occam’s razor. For example we might ask the same person from earlier to explain what A posteriori means and they respond “A posteriori knowledge or justification depends on experience or empirical evidence, as with most aspects of science and personal knowledge” (example from Wikipedia). If we apply Occam’s razor we might get something like this “A posteriori is knowledge that is gained through experience, experiment or observation”. Get rid of unnecessary words.


We should make sure that we organise concepts within a sentence in a way that others can take in the information easily. Compare these two examples:

I am good at skimming stones                                 I am good at spinning yarns,
across Lake Brunner in the                                      kicking cans, and skimming
winter, kicking cans, and                                          stones across Lake Brunner
spinning yarns.                                                           in the winter.

The first sentence places unnecessary burden on the reader/listener. It’s hard for us to work on the word dense part of the sentence, skimming stones across Lake Brunner in the winter, while continuing to take in smaller concepts. This is because it is not natural to the way we process information. Leave your heaviest concept until last.


Cognitive scientist Steven Pinker explains in his book, The Sense of Style, that it is important to start with your topic before commenting as it is easier to add new facts if we already have something to connect them to. Compare these two examples:

a) Check your left, right, and centre mirror at the end of Smith Street while driving to make sure there are no dangers.

b) To be sure there are no dangers when driving down Smith Street; make sure to check all your mirrors.

As we can see b) is more comprehensible than a) so we should try to be clear about our topic before we discuss it.


One of my biggest struggles, and I’m sure I’m not the only one, is trying to make sense of what someone is trying to say during written conversation. This is where you’ll find more misunderstandings and issues created from nothing than any other form of dialogue. The easiest solution for this is to pick up the phone and ring whoever you are talking to. But unfortunately most of us require some form of written dialogue i.e email for our jobs.

If we had to summarise the ideas in this article here is an example of what we should not do:

We shouldn’t use labyrinthine words to describe concepts or ideas to people, add extraneous words to the sentence and go on and on when the sentence should have been finalised long before now but somehow manages to keep chugging along and this is despite how hard we try to put an end to it. We definitely shouldn’t start with the heaviest concept at the beginning of the sentence, follow it with the second heaviest, and end with the lightest. We can go on ad infinitum about this and that without really getting to the point when we really should have started with the topic first and then explained why we shouldn’t go on and on. As we can see if our goal is to be clear in our speech or writing then this definitely is not the way to summarise the ideas mentioned in this article.

What we should do:

If we want people to understand our ideas then we should start with the topic before commenting, use fewer and simpler words, assume they don’t know what we know, save the most word dense concept for last, and if we can; avoid texting and pick up the phone.




  1. S. Pinker, The Sense of Style. 2014



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