Why Didn't You Say That in the First Place?
by Richard Heyman
Summary written by Conflict Research Consortium Staff
Citation: Richard Heyman. Why Didn't You Say That in the First Place? Jossey-Bass, Inc. San Francisco: 1994.
In Why Didn't You Say That in the First Place, Richard Heyman explains why misunderstandings are normal and what the reader can do to improve his or her chances of being understood. Using research in the field of ethnomethodology and the analysis of everyday talk, he shows the reader a new way of understanding how to make sense of each other's language. The book is divided into three parts. Part One shows how the root causes of misunderstanding lie in our language. Part Two demonstrates how to use this new comprehension of misunderstanding to ensure understanding in your organizational life, and Part Three looks at how an organization can create systems that foster clear communication.
The first section, "Why Nobody Understands You," has two chapters introducing why misunderstandings occur and what can be done about them. The first explains that misunderstanding is normal because of the inherent vagueness and ambiguity of language. Misunderstanding occurs when the context the hearer has created for interpreting the conversation differs from the one the speaker intends. The second chapter then points to ways to achieve a unified context, such as summaries, questions and answers, paraphrasing, and giving examples and stories.
Part Two explains "How You Can Increase the Odds in Your Favor" through clarifying your speech and writing, and avoiding stereotypes in both. Chapter Three focuses on the spoken language used by an organization internally and externally. The key message is "[i]f you don't hear their understanding out loud, don't assume that it exists" (p 59). The next chapter applies the same message to written communications such as job descriptions and e-mail. Chapter Five emphasizes that stereotypes and generalizations lead to the false assumption that all members of a particular group share the same context for understanding. In the last section of the book Heyman explains "What Your Organization Can Do to Help." The first chapter in this section lists some policies and structures that can help ensure clearer communications, such as encouraging questions and providing regular training programs. The next chapter lays out the priorities and methods of high-reliability organizations to show how the reader can identify and support their own communication priorities. Finally, the reader is reminded that it is everyone's responsibility as listeners to clear up any potential misunderstandings.
While written in the context of organizational or business communication, this book is useful in other contexts as well. For example, misunderstanding the context of a message is even more likely when people are not in the same organization, but different ones, and perhaps also members of different communities and/or cultural groups. While the suggestions for improving communication set out in this book are true for organizations, they are even more important in situations when the context between speakers is even greater.