Mondegreens are words or phrases that listeners believe they've heard, but which weren't actually spoken or sung. They sound enough like what was said, and seem to make sense, but they're wrong. A cousin of the malapropism, which is a word or phrase mistakenly substituted by a speaker, the mondegreen is a word or phrase mistakenly substituted by the listener. Mondegreens [Wright 1954] are sometimes very funny, but usually they're just dumb [Barber 1996].
Some famous mondegreens were demonstrated by Gilda Radner, a member of the original cast of Saturday Night Live, an American television program. During the show's simulated news segments, Radner appeared in the role of "Emily Litella," an elderly woman with a hearing problem. As a "columnist," she opined endlessly about topics such as "endangered feces" (species), "saving Soviet jewelry" (Jewry), and "sax and violins on television" (sex and violence). Upon being corrected by the "news anchor," Ms. Litella would sheepishly exit, saying, "Never mind," which became a catch phrase of the day, and remains in use in the U.S.
But I digress.
A conceptual mondegreen is a concept that a discussion participant mistakenly substitutes for the actual concept under discussion. It seems to makes sense, but it's incorrect, causing the misunderstander to miss the point.
For example, in a debate about circumventing arcane accounting rules regarding capitalization of software development, a mondegreen might involve the rules about capitalizing software, instead of software development.
Here are two common situations in which conceptual mondegreens arise.
- Problem solving
- When trying to explain why a problem solution failed, if the available data is of poor quality or incomplete, formulating a hypothesis can produce conceptual mondegreens. A hypothesis is useful for devising experiments to gather better data, but instead of devising experiments, some people just accept the hypothesis as true. Then they commit the organization to a solution modified on that basis, which can be an expensive error if the hypothesis is incorrect.
- When solving A conceptual mondegreen is a
concept that a discussion participant
mistakenly substitutes for the
actual concept under discussionproblems, adopt candidate explanations as mere candidates. Devise experiments to reveal their shortcomings, rather than to confirm their strengths.
- Contending with adversaries
- Conceptual mondegreens also appear when we try to understand the behavior of adversaries such as political rivals, competitive companies, battlefield opponents, opposing sports teams, or products similar to our own. Observing the adversary's configuration and resources, we project its future behavior. But unlike problem solving, we can't always perform experiments to refine our conjectures. Still, we might try a feint on the battlefield, the playing field, or in the marketplace, to see how the adversary responds. That might provide useful data, but the best data comes from ongoing engagement with the adversary.
- Adopt the view that continued engagement with the adversary has value beyond possibly winning the competition. It also provides data that can resolve the conceptual mondegreens pertaining to the adversary's behavior.
When a mondegreen makes an appearance, it can indicate uneven distribution of knowledge or expertise within the group. Unless that's addressed, mondegreens will likely appear again and again. Top Next Issue
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More articles on Conflict Management:
- What Makes a Good Question?
- In group discussion or group problem solving, many of us focus on being the first one to provide the
answer. The right answer can be good; but often, the right question can be better.
- Discussion Distractions: II
- Meetings are less productive than they might be, if we could learn to recognize and prevent the most
common distractions. Here is Part II of a small catalog of distractions frequently seen in meetings.
- Political Framing: Strategies
- In organizational politics, one class of toxic tactics is framing — accusing a group or individual
by offering interpretations of their actions to knowingly and falsely make them seem responsible for
reprehensible or negligent acts. Here are some strategies framers use.
- Shame and Bullying
- Targets of bullies sometimes experience intense feelings of shame. Here are some insights that might
restore the ability to think, and maybe end the bullying.
- Managing Dissent Risk
- In group decision making, dissent risk is the risk that dissents about important decisions will be rejected
without due consideration. As a result, group decision quality can suffer, and some groups will actually
eject dissenters. How can we manage dissent risk?
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming December 18: The Trap of Beautiful Language
- As we assess the validity of others' statements, we risk making a characteristically human error — we confuse the beauty of their language with the reliability of its meaning. We're easily thrown off by alliteration, anaphora, epistrophe, and chiasmus. Available here and by RSS on December 18.
- And on December 25: Disjoint Awareness
- In collaborations, awareness of how our own work might interfere with the work of others is essential. Unless our awareness of others' work — and their awareness of ours — matches reality, the collaboration's objective is at risk. Available here and by RSS on December 25.
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- The Power Affect: How We Express Our Personal Power
Many people who possess real organizational power have a characteristic demeanor. It's the way they project their presence. I call this the power affect. Some people — call them power pretenders — adopt the power affect well before they attain significant organizational power. Unfortunately for their colleagues, and for their organizations, power pretenders can attain organizational power out of proportion to their merit or abilities. Understanding the power affect is therefore important for anyone who aims to attain power, or anyone who works with power pretenders. Read more about this program.