Heartfelt Dialogues

Unravelling Emotional Influences on Communication

How often have you said something with the best of intentions, only to have a friend react in an unexpected way? Most of us have had multiple experiences with the effects of miscommunications. Usually, these are quite easily resolved.
Other times, they have devastating effects on projects and relationships.

In the late nineties, a simple misunderstanding caused a NASA orbiter to crash into Mars. Controller teams from different parts of the world were collaborating to guide the spacecraft into orbit around the red planet. But as both teams used a different measurement system (imperial vs. metric), they ended up creating a very expensive new crater on Mars.

Luckily most misunderstanding do not have a price tag running in the hundreds of millions. Still, it is best to avoid them if we can.


We value to ability to stay rational, calm, and collected in any situation.

Think of your run-of-the-mill action hero. In general, you will find they are extremely stoic. Nothing phases them. Their adversaries generally become frustrated with their inability to trigger a response from the hero, causing them to do lose their cool, make bad decisions to annoy the hero. Their inability to stay calm leading directly to their downfall.

Unlike these characters, most of us are not in total control of our emotions. We tend to get bored when listening to long-winded stories that have no impact on our lives. We tend to become upset, or sad, when hearing bad news. And we tend to get angry, or distraught when things do not go our way.

How we process messages: a simplified model

When we hear someone say something, we process the message. Usually, we have some sort of reaction to it. How we react tends to depend on a variety of factors: How we are feeling at the time; What is being said; What we heard; What memories this brings up; How we tend to think about life.

To make matters even more complicated, no two people are alike. What is pleasant or agreeable to one person might be an affront to another. In order to reason about this, we can consider how we process incoming information as a series of distinct steps:

  • Our Input Filter: Sound waves reach our ears, and get processed by our brains. Or light reaches our eyes, and gets processed. Either way, this causes a subtle change between what is being sent, and what is being received.
  • How we process the message: After we registered information, we process it further, and assign meaning to it. Most miscommunications happen here.
  • Our Internal Context: How we react to the meaning we assigned to what is being said highly depends on what is going on inside our heads at the time. When we feel particularly tense, or we recall painful memories, we tend to overreact to otherwise harmless stimuli.
  • Our Emotional Response: Depending on our internal context, we’ll have an emotional reaction to the message.
  • Back the same way: Our response then travels all the way back from the “emotional reaction” layer, passing through each of the previous steps. Until finally, it reaches our Output filter. This filter acts as the last line of defence we have before blurting out something we will regret later.

Given all these possibilities to dilute a message and draw wrong conclusions, it should come as no surprise that we often misunderstand each other.