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How to Avoid Miscommunication: It’s not just what you say.

Submitted by hfannin on Thu, 10/17/2019 - 07:58

Life is hurried in our house. Today, no more hurried than yesterday. My husband, Charles, stood in the kitchen making his breakfast as usual. I sat at the kitchen table getting an early jump on work. 

I called out to him asking, “You’re going to Miles’ project thing at 2:30 right? I don’t think I can get off in time.

“Yes.” He responded over his shoulder. “Oh, Miles was wondering if you’re doing the birthday party for his class like you did last year...with cupcakes and stuff?”

To the back of my husband’s head I responded, “He never said anything about wanting a party.” 

Seems innocent enough, right? Enter: stuttering. I have had a stutter since I was 4 years old. My speech is not fluent---meaning it is often interrupted by random pauses in speech (called “blocks”), repetitions of words and sounds, and abnormal prolongation of sounds (Ex Heeee-llo vs hello). Charles and I have been married for 12 ½ years. My stuttering is no secret from him. He has told me before that he doesn’t really hear it anymore unless it’s really severe, and that stuttering is so much a part of me that it’s “normal.”  The National Stuttering Association reports that roughly 3 million Americans stutter---that’s only about 1% of the population. In school, I was often the only person I knew of who stuttered. So I see how people who stutter tend to blend into the background…until stuttering rears its ugly head. At the pharmacy counter giving our name and date of birth. At the restaurant giving our order to the waiter. In the department meeting at work with all eyes on us as we give the weekly update. In my kitchen, responding to the back of husband’s head.

I can tell you, assuredly, however you initially read my response to my husband is not how it came out.  I “blocked” on the 'n' in never, creating emphasis when the word came out. I blocked on 'p' in party.  This time with air built up behind my pursed lips creating a slight delay in response and a harsh, plosive production of the word, as if irritated at the thought my soon-to-be-7 year old expected a celebration.

But I didn’t feel that way. I actually felt shame. Shame that I had been so busy with what I was doing the past week, that it did not even cross my mind to bring cupcakes and juice boxes to my son’s class to make him feel special for his birthday. When the response hit the back of my husband’s head and his ears, he heard the first interpretation.

“Well, don’t yell at me! I’m just telling you what he said.”

“I’m not yelling at you,” I say defensively---and now, halfway yelling. 

When I spoke to Charles’ back, he couldn’t see the briefly half-opened mouth with no sound coming out as I spoke “never”, or pursed lips and closed eyes as I was pushing out “party.” He didn’t see the stutter, so what he heard was interpreted as “normal” speech. The intonation of speech associated with irritability and agitation. While I produced the words I intended, the meaning was misinterpreted because of how they came out.

This type of miscommunication is common place now, even among people without a stuttering diagnosis or other speech impairment .  With so many of our interactions with one another happening via text message and email instead of face-to-face, miscommunication is bound to happen. In an updated article for 2018, analyzed data collected from the Pew Research Center and stated that on average, American adults and teens send and receive 94 text messages a day! While this stat includes the obligatory text from your bank or movie rental kiosk deal, that’s a lot of non face-to-face interaction with people. People who might be on the other end assuming the tone of your message.

Verbal communication is not just what we say (or don’t say), but it is also how we say it: Using a higher pitch to indicate excitement, the long pause before a response that could signify doubt, or a  compliment laced with a tone of sarcasm. When combined with nonverbal communication--- gestures, facial expressions, and body positions---a “complete” message is communicated.  People with disorders that impact their ability to communicate, are at greater risk of being misunderstood or unintentionally marginalized because of their deficits. I can not tell you how many times I’ve been hung-up on or cut-off in conversation because the person I was communicating with didn’t realize I wasn’t finished with my statement or question, but was actually in the middle of a stutter. Or people with aphasia (a speech & language disorder common after a stroke or brain injury) who know what they want to say, but just let others speak for them because it’s easier.

So how can we help minimize these types of miscommunications? Here are some suggestions as listeners AND speakers we can do to be better communicators: 

#1 Start with an open mind

What you already believe about a person, culture and the current environmental conditions contribute to how we communicate with one another. While considering these aspects is helpful in how we communicate, we should also be open to the idea that people don’t always fit neatly into a box and may stray from our preconceived notions.

#2 If you have communication challenges, share them

I advise my clients to be open about their communication challenges. This helps the listener, well, be a better listener. By understanding how you communicate, a person can adjust how they listen; with the focus being on the intended message. People with aphasia can use an “I Have Aphasia card.” When I have to have a conversation over the phone, I let the person know I have a stutter. Listeners tend to be more patient, and I don’t nearly get as many people hanging up me. 

#3 Be aware of your nonverbal communication

What are your use of gestures, facial expressions, and body positions (or lack thereof) saying to others? If your partner is hard of hearing, don’t talk from another room. Lack of eye contact or working on another task while conversing might send the  message that what is being said is not important to you. Stop the task, and listen. If it’s not a good time to talk, say so. Let them know you care, and try to arrange an alternate time to speak with them. People in advanced stages of Parkinson’s disease or who have had a brain injury may have a flat affect, or diminished facial expressions. Their ability to show humor or concern with their faces is decreased and they are often misinterpreted as being too serious or indifferent. 

#4 Repair the breakdown

We’re human, and miscommunication happens. Everyone---listener & speaker---carries the responsibility of assisting to repair the communication breakdown. Acknowledged what you heard. Don’t say you understand if you don’t. If you suspect miscommunication, ask for clarification: “Did what I said make sense?” Or “Hmm, so what you’re saying is…?”. Allow for those with impairment to use methods other than speech to get their message across, such as pictures, gestures, or writing. Modify your environment to improve communication, such as reducing background noise or other distractions.

Communication is essential in all aspects of life and is a common thread that links us together. American humorist, Leo Rosten, once said, “Behind  the need to communicate is the need to share. Behind the need to share is to be understood.


As we approach International Stuttering Awareness Day (October 22), know that while we ALL communicate, we don’t all communicate the same way.  Keep an open mind, be willing to share your challenges, nonverbal communication matters, and take the time to clear up miscommunications. 

As you share your thoughts today, don’t forget to take the time to try to understand someone else’s.