Shared Understanding Doesn't Exist


I just wrote a blog post about how Cognitive Biases Trick Us. Which highlights many of our challenges in understanding the information provided to us and making decisions based on it.

Dilbert Understanding

What is shared understanding

I’ve been in many meetings where the goal has been to reach shared (or common) understanding. Usually it has been about essentially complex requirement that has caused misunderstandings. But not only restricted to requirements. Some of the meetings have been about informing a new way of work.

More or less anyway about clarifying something that could be easily misunderstood.

It’s just that shared understanding itself hasn’t been defined on places where I’ve faced it. I’ve got the impression that it has meant in past meetings something like this

Each person perceives the intended meaning similarly

I wasn’t able to find any apparently credible definition for shared understanding, but the ones I found were something different than what I’ve (shallowly) understood myself

Shared understanding represents a “collective way of organizing relevant information” (Hinds & Weisband, 2003: 21) and lets a group
collaborate more effectively.

This is different from perceiving meaning similarly as it’s more about enabling the group to collaborate by having some degree of common understanding.

Shared understanding doesn’t exist

I personally approach this by saying myself that shared understanding doesn’t exist. Let me explain.

When we are discussing with group of people about any work related subject that we want to have better understanding as collective group. We are firstly affected our biases. Secondly our mental engagement tends to differentiate depending on the person. Thirdly culture and the system itself affects to how questioning and general candidness is valued. And I could go on and on.

Point being, we have no idea how much we have (mis)understood each other. That’s when I assume that we have misunderstood. At least to some degree. Instead of shared understanding, we are having more like a shallow understanding. And that’s fine. We will do our best to catch those misunderstandings (in cases where risk requires it) as soon as we can. Like Richard Feynman said

“We are trying to prove ourselves wrong as quickly as possible, because only in that way can we find progress.”