If I Understand You Correctly

Recently my wife and I were discussing the book I was reading. She had already read it and asked me what was happening so she could know how far along I was and thus what she could say without spoiling the plot for me. I gave her a short synopsis of recent developments. She stared at me, then said she didn’t remember that happening. I replied that it did, and restated the synopsis in a different way. “Oh, *that’s* where you are!”

Sound like software development, no? The program manager writes a specification describing in some amount of detail how the feature should work. The developer writes a bunch of code which implements their interpretation of the spec. The tester does a bunch of testing of that code and files bugs based on their interpretation of the spec. The developer says “Well of course it doesn’t work that way; see section 42.38 of the spec which says I implemented it exactly right!” The tester says “That’s not what it says, it says I am exactly right!” And then the PM, having overheard this discussion, jumps in with “You’re both wrong, how could either of you ever think my beautiful spec said either of those things?”

My wife heard a different character’s name than I had meant to say. That is, a misunderstanding had occurred. I find this to be commonplace anytime two or more people are talking with each other.

Next we each realized that a misunderstanding had occurred. I find this to be less commonplace. More usually at least one of the parties hasn’t a clue that the others don’t have the same understanding they have.

Finally we cleared up the misunderstanding. I find this to be even less commonplace. While many people may attempt to do so, actually purposefully getting everyone on the same page seems to be a rare-ish occurrence.

One of my current projects is aimed at making steps two and three commonplace. I am training myself to reply to everything I hear with a rephrasing of what I heard. Rephrasing what I hear forces me to actually hear and process it, as opposed to simply listening to it. Rephrasing it also helps to highlight misunderstandings, because the person to whom I am replying has a chance to process my reply and see how well it matches up with what they meant to say. Rephrasing also helps assure the other person I am actually hearing what they are saying and not simply nodding my head and saying “Mmmhmm”.

Some of the time the other person says “Yes, that’s correct” and the conversation continues. Other times they say “No, that is not what I meant to say” and we work to clear up the understanding. Either way we are both engaged and confident that we are on the same page.

Can this get annoying? Yes. Can it slow down conversations? Yes. Does it increase the fidelity of my conversations? Yes.

Give it a try yourself and let me know how it works for you!

*** Want a fun job on a great team? I need a tester! Interested? Let’s talk: Michael dot J dot Hunter at microsoft dot com. Great testing and coding skills required.

Comments (4)

  1. Ivolved says:

    The Mrs. and I did something similar with "The Deathly Hallows" I read it first and she picked it up shortly thereafter.

    I agree with your thoughts on the imprecision of human communication. Couple that with the fact that the specs are written as an interpretation of what the business analyst gathers from the stakeholders and it’s easy to see how it’s difficult to deliver what the business expects from a software product.

  2. Roger Foden says:

    "I know that you believe you understand what you think I said, but I’m not sure you realize that what you heard is not what I meant." – Richard Nixon

    True story : I once raised a defect, that both the coder and analyst (who wrote the requirement) thought was wrong, but for different reasons. When we met to discuss it, we decided that what was really wanted was a fourth ‘interpretation’! I then persuaded the analyst to discuss (review) his thoughts with a coder and a tester, before fixing on a solution. It improved things…

    I suspect that most ‘avoidable’ problems have poor communication as their root cause.

  3. From my vague recollection of the academic/business courses I’ve taken, you’ve just outline the perfect situation for Active Listening.  Let me know how it goes for you!


    If anything, it will only improve your relationship with your coworkers and your Mrs, as now you are truly paying close attention by paraphrasing.

  4. P.C. says:

    True, rephrasing is very helpful.  I do that a lot with my 3 year old who doesn’t speak very clearly yet but perhaps I could make more use of it with adults. However from watching different parts of the project cycle, I’ve always wondered if perhaps the fact that skilled communication, strong documentation skills, & being a detail-orientated person is much undervalued when most managers hire their project managers and project liasons.  I’ve seen so many non-detail-orientated people employed in IT that it’s almost scary.  You know as in for example: the people who spend days trying to fix a problem by pressing random keys & check boxes… when it only takes me 1/2 hour of knowledgebase research or RTFM to give them the fix or source of their problem.  Or how about the project manager who went live for a new ERP system without ever considering in her project plan who was going to rewrite all the former system ERP & critical accounting reports as well as create all the SQL functions for them!