I was running recently and as I approached a trailhead parking lot, a gentleman called to me and asked, “Is that you?”

Now, I have been asked that question in the same way once before and both times I gave the same answer, “Yes.”

While that answer was, strictly speaking, accurate, in neither case did it satisfy the other person’s query. Was that because of my answer or because of their question?

I see two primary reasons that communication is ineffective and frustrating. The first is that one person gives less context than is required for a fully measured response. Examples include the question, “Is that you?” The two options are yes and no but neither properly satisfies the questioner because the question was not properly asked.

I am me, and have been me, for all of my 51 years on this planet but my “yes” answer, while correct, was insufficient because the question was insufficient. The reason the question was lacking is because the spoken words were only a small part of what was running through the questioner’s mind.

As I got closer to the gentleman in the parking lot, he said he was waiting for a runner who was going to take him somewhere in his car. With this extra information I said that no, I was not who he was looking for. 

The other time I was asked if I was me was when I was a teenage boy with a paper route. I knocked on a subscriber’s door one evening to collect the monthly paper fee and from the other side a woman asked, “Is that you?” 

Not realizing at age 15 that “you” could refer to someone else I said yes and that (nearly naked) woman opened the door. It became instantly clear that her definition of “you” and my definition of “you” were significantly different.

All of us have much more that runs through our minds than what runs from our mouths. The key to accurate and effective communication is to give the other person enough context so they can give an accurate and effective response. 

I recently saw this happen throughout a 30-minute TV news interview between Jordan Peterson and Cathy Newman during a British news program. He was there to speak about his book and she to ask in-depth questions.

He answered her probing questions very specifically and she restated ideas that were clearly not what he said. I believe this was because she had already decided who Peterson was and what he was going to say before the interview occurred. 

As a result she apparently felt there was no need to listen for understanding, but only for an opening. You can watch that interview here. It’s a fascinating case study from an ineffective communication perspective.

In both cases, unclear questions with insufficient context or predetermined listening, the parties in the conversations come out frustrated and, ultimately, unable to actually communicate.