Avoiding Misinterpreting What Parties Say
10 Apr 2017

By Dr Lim Lan Yuan


The psychology of the minds of people is a complex thing. It is influenced by a whole host of attributes such as perception, emotion, mood, motivation, attitude and personality. One of the common issues encountered by mediators as well as parties is the way they interpret what they see or hear. In this article we will focus on the problems that can emerge when we interpret events wrongly. More importantly, we want to learn and understand why sometime people misinterpret or perceive wrongly what they see or hear.

Interpretation basically refers to the meaning we assign to our sensory stimuli, for example, what we see from our eyes and hear from our ears. Two people can see or hear the same event but their interpretation of it can be different. The meaning that we assign to a stimulus depends on the schema or set of beliefs to which we assign it. Identifying and evoking the correct schema is crucial for a correct interpretation.

Unfortunately we determine or interpret the meaning of the stimulus based on our past experiences, expectations and needs including our prejudices. We are influenced by these when we put meanings to what we see or hear. We often hear the saying “in the eyes of the beholder” or what is known as interpretational bias. It is the process of “seeing what you want to see” or “hearing what you want to hear”. People tend to project their own desires or assumptions onto what they see or hear.

Example of Issues:

  • You are upset when you see littering or cluttered places as you personally like a place that is neat and tidy.
  • You dislike couples who break up because you come from a single-parent family.
  • You hear tickling sound and jump to the conclusion that it comes from the unit upstairs. However, the noise in fact comes from the lift shaft away from the unit upstairs as noise travels in various ways.
  • You saw Party B slapping Party A, hence you are drawing the conclusion that Party B is wrong. It so happened that you did not see the earlier situation when Party A slapped Party B twice, hence Party B retaliated.
  • A child who has a crippled father felt ashamed of herself. She wondered why her mother would agree to marry a crippled person. When going out, the child refused to ask her father to come along. Her mother later explained to her child how the father got his leg crippled. It was when the child was 3 years old and very playful, she ran out to the road. The father rushed out in time to save her but got himself injured as a result. This explanation puts the child in shame of her attitude towards her father.

Avoiding Misinterpretation:

In order to avoid misinterpretation, mediators need to seek clarification from the parties.
For example, we may need to ask parties the following questions:

“Is this what you see or hear?”

“Is this how you interpret the situation ie what you saw or heard?” “Could the interpretation be wrong?”

“Why do you feel so confident that your interpretation is right?”

“Do you know why they act or speak that way?”

Questions such as above may help to ensure that the parties as well as mediator understand the perspectives of each party more accurately. Misinterpretation can give rise to misunderstanding and conflicts unless the wrong interpretation or misperception is clarified.