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Communication is always paired with interpretation that shapes how an interaction is understood and what it means. Interpretation is determined by several factors that work simultaneously. A great deal of sensitivity is required to understand how each factor plays out and to what degree it influences perception. Such factors include a person's education, surroundings, cultural context, personal experience, and even his or her current emotional state and mood, all of which affect the communication process and its outcomes.

The Language Behind the Text

More than by using subject and predicate in a sentence, emotion, intuition, and other forms of understanding direct us. When we speak or write, some inner impulse expresses a feeling. Sometimes this expression into words even does not occur simultaneously with our feelings."

Cultural assumptions: Am I going crazy or is he...???

Misunderstandings can't always be prevented when people are in contact or working together. In doing so, we always see reality through the glasses of our cultural imprints. What I consider a very kind behavior (e.g. accompanying a guest at all times and paying for shared expenses) can be an uncomfortable and limiting situation for a person who is not used to this. In seminars, participants from different countries, social classes, study courses, minorities, have different sexes, etc. come together to work with one another - and there is a strong likelihood that misunderstandings will occur.

Before we simplify everything and write someone off as a "typical" Croatian, Czech person, etc., we should be aware that in every encounter a lot of different factors play a role and that they influence each other. There is the external situation (meeting at a university, in a cafe, or on a busy street) and the individual person (self-conscious, shy etc.) with his or her own diverse cultural imprints (inhabitant of a village, only child, studied in Russia etc).

Clarity through Empathy

So how can we communicate most effectively and productively? How can we limit the role of interpretation and reduce the chances that someone's personal background will interfere with receiving our messages accurately? There is no one simple answer because it is nearly impossible to control such communication. Each person is an individual with a unique approach and a unique experience of the world. He or she sees the world through a personal lens or filter while communicating and interacting. Nevertheless, learning about and working to improve communication skills can help us keep this in mind. We remain aware that one simple message can have countless interpretations.

  • How could one interprete the said in a different way?
  • How did person A perceive the said?
  • How person B?

The Danger of Assuming

Interpretation is also shaped dramatically by interests, cultural or social factors: habits and conventions that people do not analyze on a day to day basis and that can be very entwined with identity make us generalize and follow stereotypes about other people. Therefore we should give the people a chance to irritate us and to correct our assumptions about them.

Communication Skills in Trainings

In this sense it needs both for successful communication: Enough empathy and interpretation skills. but as well the skill to rationalize communication and to reduce it on the facts. Facilitators that work on both help their participants to reflect their communication better.

Furthermore we have to work on our capacities to receive as well as on those to send messages. The work with communication models like the Four Sides of a Message or working with methods that have the goal to mobilize empathy help receiving and interpreting information. Methods like Constructive Feedback or Powerful Listening which improve the active communication skills broaden the possibilities of expression.


  • Bourdieu, Pierre, Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste, trans. Richard Nice, Harvard University Press 1984.
  • Schulz von Thun, Friedemann : Miteinander reden: Störungen und Klärungen. Psychologie der zwischenmenschlichen Kommunikation. Rowohlt, Reinbek 1981

Nils-Eyk Zimmermann

Nils-Eyk Zimmermann

Editor of Competendo. Coordinator of the project DIGIT-AL Digital Transformation in Adult Learning for Active Citizenship. Secretary of the DARE network. Topics: active citizenship, civil society, digital transformation, non-formal and lifelong learning, capacity building. Blogs here: Blog: Civil Resilience. Email: