On failure to understand what the other is saying
Background: There are occasions on which, or circumstances in which, we simply don’t understand at all what the other is trying to say. We may be able to (more or less) hear what they are saying, and can (kind of) make out the words; but we don’t understand what they are saying or trying to tell us. When this occurs, and they are probably not that frequent, we encounter pretty radical communication breakdown – incomprehension. Our approach to identifying and analysing miscommunications focuses on miscommunications that participants themselves perceive to be communication difficulties, not ones that may be (putatively) identified only by the observer/analyst. Moments in conversation where the participants themselves recognise and try to fix communication breakdowns – incomprehension – are therefore particularly salient for our methodology, that of Conversation Analysis.
Presentation: Just such a radical communication breakdown occurs in an interaction between a patient in her 60s, who has suffered language loss as a result of a stroke, and her speech therapist. In this (video recorded) interchange it’s apparent to the therapist that the patient is trying to tell her something, and something perhaps about her youth; but the therapist simply cannot fathom what the patient is trying to say/tell her. Indeed in response to the patient’s opening turn in this attempted telling, the therapist says quietly I’m not getting this; she repeats this very shortly after, so that it’s quite apparent to the patient also that her therapist does not understand the point she’s trying to make/story she’s telling. The remainder of this interaction is characterised by multiple attempts at repair; although during this short interchange the therapist seems to grasp parts of what the patient is saying, it’s not clear at the end whether she has understood fully the ‘point’ of the telling. We’ll explore some of the detail in this interaction between them, with a view to uncovering how things went so radically wrong – what it is about the patient’s telling that the therapist just didn’t grasp.