It's the Way we Interpret that Defines Results

Posted by martin.parnell |

Our son, Calum, was recently visiting from Wales. One weekend, he was telling my wife, Sue, about a friend of his who was taking part in the Newport (Wales) Photomarathon. This is a photographic competition with a twist.

Typically you have a set period of time to take a set amount of photographs, on specific topics in a set order. With prizes given on the best interpretation of these topics. Participants need a sense of creativity and an eye for a good photo! Photo marathons have proved popular around the world on every continent, with regular events in Denmark, Germany, Netherlands, the Czech Republic, France and Russia, as well as Wales. After the Photomarathon day, all the images are collated and printed and a panel of judges meet to decide the winners. Often, the photos will then go on show in a free public exhibition.

For this year’s competition, the subjects given were:

1. This is me now           2. Reach          3. Three is the magic number        4.Mirrored

5. The perfect place       6. People powered         7.Yellow          8.Heart of a lion

9. Space and time          10. A rusty ramshackle     11. Undercover      12. Make a change

Sue suggested it would be fun if she and Calum tried to complete the requirements of the competition, even though they wouldn’t be able to enter. And so they did. Calum has a great eye and imagination, his friend is more technical and Sue just snapped away and enjoyed the challenge. What struck them both, when they looked at their photos, as well as those that Calum received from his friend, was the way in which they had all produced such a wide range of images, on the same topic.

It’s often the case that a group of individuals can have very different takes on the same thing, whether it be something they’ve seen or read, or even instructions they have received. This is great when you are looking for ideas for a project, ways to approach a task or input to invigorate your business. On occasion, as in the photo marathon, this can lead to diverse and exciting results, but there are times when it’s very important that everyone interprets things in the same way. This is of particular importance, in business, if you want to work together, collaborate on goal setting or present a united front.

At these times, you cannot leave things open to interpretation you need to be precise and accurate in the information you give and make expectations clear.

For his article, Make yourself understood, for Smart Business, Curt Harler asks the question “How can a corporate executive reduce the chances of being misunderstood (or misunderstanding what is said) in conversations with employees?” For answers, he asked Robert Serum, vice president of Academics and International Programs at Northwood University, Midland, Michigan these are some of them along with Serum’s responses:

What is the difference between misinterpretation and miscommunication?
Suggesting a fundamental difference would be contrived at best. Some would suggest that miscommunication is a form of misinterpretation that falls into one or more of several defined categories, such as bypassing or polarization. Even in the field of art, many critics would say no interpretation is really wrong, and that, once published, the artist has no more interpretation authority than the critic. Humans have a unique ability to communicate across time and great distance. 

Which is more prevalent and why?
If you accept the slight limitation above, then misinterpretation is more prevalent and miscommunication might be seen as a subset. 

Is this because people miss inflections or body language?
Those are factors, but there are many examples of miscommunication that don’t depend on either. For example, you and I work together, and I invite you to lunch at the Holiday Inn tomorrow. You ask the time, and I say, ‘Let’s meet in the parking lot at 11:45.’ The next day, you are waiting in the company lot and I’m waiting in the Holiday Inn parking lot at 11:45. Nobody’s wrong, but nobody asked, ‘Which parking lot?’ We have completely ‘bypassed’ as sender and receiver. 

What are the main ways communications go wrong?
Communication tends to go wrong because of unexamined assumptions. Both parties assume understanding was perfect and perhaps neither has asked, ‘What is going on here?’ Every form of miscommunication is exacerbated by data overload and the increasingly complex environments in which we live and work. 

What can I do to be more receptive?
Ask questions out loud … and ask yourself follow-up questions. If you don’t know the answers, check back. And don’t forget eye contact. 

How do you handle a case where it becomes obvious your worker did not really understand what you meant in a conversation?
Always take responsibility yourself, because you are one-half of every miscommunication. Your employee will be encouraged that you are comfortable commenting on your faults and will probably also take responsibility. Then ask the employee, ‘How could we have prevented this.’ If you don’t get a good answer, suggest one. 

We mentioned e-mail. Does the Internet make it easier or more difficult for a supervisor to communicate clearly with employees?
Both. E-mail is a written record that you and others can re-examine when there is uncertainty. E-mail also adds dramatically to the numbers of direct communications most of us have every day — some of them to the other side of the globe. So the magnitude adds to both the better and the worse. On balance, I come down on the side of ‘better,’ but I worry that it can replace too much necessary face-to-face communication. Face-to-face communication almost always tells us more.”

So, in whatever way you may be communicating, whether it be spoken or written, it’s important to ensure that there can be no misinterpretation, otherwise, you may end up with results and responses as diverse as those presented at the Photomarathon and this may lead to confusion for both your colleagues and your clients.

About the Author

Martin Parnell is the Best-Selling author of MARATHON QUEST and RUNNING TO THE EDGE and his final book in the Marathon Trilogy, THE SECRET MARATHON-Empowering women and girls in Afghanistan through sport, was released on October 30th 2018. He speaks on having a “Finish the Race Attitude – Overcoming Obstacles to Achieve Your Full Potential” and has written for, or been covered by CNNBBCCBCThe Huffington Post, The Globe and Mail, The National Post, Runners World, Men’s Journal, Canadian Business, and Maclean’s.

In a five year period, from 2010 to 2014, Martin completed 10 extreme endurance “Quests” including running 250 marathons in one year and raising $1.3m for the humanitarian organization Right To Play. In 2016 he ran the Marathon of Afghanistan in support of Afghan women and girls running for equality and his film “The Secret Marathon” will be out in late 2019. Find out more about Martin at  and see what he can do for you in the long run.

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