Miscommunication – it might just be different memories


Don’t you hate it when you painstakingly lay out your vision and expectations for a project only to have your team fall way short of your expectations? It happens to many of us and it’s frustrating. It’s frustrating for you and for your team.  Often we chalk these situations up to miscommunication. However, recent research into how our memory works paints a different picture.


In their book, The Invisible Gorilla, Daniel Simon and Chris Chabris discuss what they call “the illusion of memory”. Their point is that we often act as though our memories are like computers – carefully recording and storing information. But, that’s not the case. Simon and Chabris make an argument that our memories tend to be quite fluid and malleable. Often they wind up being as much of a reflection of what we expected to happen or what happened to someone else as they are a reflection of reality.


So what does this have to do with your meetings and your memories? And, why can two (or more) people have completely different recollections of the same event? Any memory that you have of an event is based upon three sets of information:


1) the memory of the actual event.
2) your thinking and planning prior to the event
3) your reflection on that event.


Only the memory of the actual event is based upon shared experience between you and the other person. That means that there are four other influences for which there is no common basis. No wonder our shared recollections can be so far off. Even the memory of the actual experience is suspect. Research and our daily experience tell us that two people can look at or listen to the exact same thing and yet come away with a very different interpretation of what occurred. Peter Senge’s “Ladder of Inference” and “Left Side Conversation” illustrated this principle quite well.


So we start off with a “suspect” recollection and then just add to it. The other two influences, your pre and post meeting thoughts, play a bigger role in shaping your memory than you might anticipate. Often we will fill-in details based on our expectations. For example, if a certain person usually pushes back on ideas, there is a good chance that you will “remember” that person pushing back – whether they did or not.


Once you’ve combined your unique interpretation of the event with your thoughts prior to and after the event, you most likely have a memory that bears very little resemblance to what transpired. Worse yet, it bears even less resemblance to what the other person remembers transpiring.


So, given that we can’t rely on our shared memories, we need a better way to create and ensure shared understanding. Here are a few tips:


1) Rapid prototyping –Within a day of the meeting, have the team provide a model of their solution. This will give you the most concrete view of how they are interpreting your request.

2) Provide examples – provide examples of both what you are and are not looking for. Sometimes the non-examples are more important. If there is a risk that people will confuse your ideas with prior ideas, it is important to get those prior ideas out in the open and explain how the new ideas is different.

3) Have a follow up meeting – after a day or two, conduct a follow up meeting to see if people’s memories of the meeting are the same.