Language is so imprecise a tool for communicating. We're trying to get ideas across, but all we have are words that imperfectly represent those ideas.
Even when we both speak the same language, the ideas can easily get lost in translation.
I've run into this a lot as a software engineer. I'll listen to a client describe what they want, go off and try to build it, and then come back and it turns out what I heard was nothing like what they had in mind.
Don't just listen, check in
The mistake I made that led me to build the wrong thing was that I assumed that by passively listening, I was getting all the information that my client was trying to give me.
The solution? Whenever you're listening, check in along the way to make sure you understand.
"Let me confirm — I think I heard you say that..."
Don't just mimic, restate
This concept of repeating back what you hear is a part of active listening. The goal is to deliberately engage with the speaker not only to avoid misunderstandings, but also to build trust and connection.
But there is a key nuance here. You don't want to just repeat back in the words of the original speaker — you want to restate what you heard in the words you would use.
This restating and then checking in allows you to test your translation of the speaker's intent. They translated the idea in to their words, which you translate back into an idea, and then re-translate into your own words.
If after that entire process you both agree about what was said, you're much more likely to have truly understood what the speaker intended.