Why Conversations Break Down: Episode 1, “Impliference”

Impliference is not a real word. I made it up, but it’s a real thing, and it's dangerous.

Have you ever found yourself in a difficult conversation and wondered, wow, how’d we get here? How did a seemingly innocuous interaction turn so hostile so fast? Do we even know what we’re arguing about?

In her book, Fierce Conversations, Author Susan Scott makes a bold claim: The conversation is not about the relationship. The conversation is the relationship. We agree. In fact, the word itself, from the Latin conversatio, originally meant “to live with / keep company with.” If we cannot be in a conversation together, we really cannot be together at all.

Yet we all know that having productive conversations about topics that matter can be tricky, especially when the stakes feel high and emotions are running hot. A conversation can break down quickly, taking productivity and relationships with it.

We don’t want that, so we’re going to explore a few of the biggest wrenches that get thrown into the conversational works so you can spot them, remove them when necessary, and hopefully avoid throwing them in there in the first place. The first of those is impliference.


An impliference is what happens when you confuse the verbs imply and infer. It’s a made up word, but it might as well be real, because most of us do it all the time.

Here’s a conversation we have with executive coaching clients on a fairly regular basis.

Client (incensed): “She said I don’t know how to do my job!”

Coach: “Wow! That’s hurtful. Did she actually say that?”

Client: “OK, maybe she didn’t use those exact words, but that’s what she implied!”

Coach: “Got it. How do you know that was her implication? Did you ask her?”

Client: “Well, no, but it was pretty obvious!”

Coach: “Let’s pretend for a second that was not what she meant. Can you make up a different story as to why she might have said those exact words?”

Client: “No!” (We all like our stories and sometimes struggle to let them go.)

Coach: “I bet you can. Get creative. What is one other reason she might have said that?”

Client: “I don’t know. Maybe she was in a hurry or a customer was being demanding and she was stressed out and just needed a quick answer.”

Coach: “Good. So I’m wondering, is it possible that she did not mean to imply that you don’t know how to do your job, but rather that is just what you inferred?”

Here’s a coaching secret: we already know the answer to that last question. While the offending coworker might have implied, the client definitely inferred, because as the listener, that is the only thing he could do.

To imply and to infer are related. Both involve an exchange of meaning not explicitly stated, but there is a crucial difference: Speakers imply. Listeners infer. To infer requires that we make up a story about what was said or what happened, and our stories are often just plain wrong, especially in conflict.

This is just semantics. Why does it matter?

It matters because when we make an impliference, muddling imply with infer, we often forget that an impliference was a story that originated between our own ears. It was us who filled in the meaning that was not explicitly stated. It was not what actually happened. It was our interpretation of what happened. It was a story we created, but we treat it as fact.

A more accurate statement like, “I interpreted what she said as an insult (and my interpretation could be wrong),” becomes simply, “She insulted me!” We pretend we have certainty regarding the other’s intentions. We respond in kind, and a complete breakdown in communication is likely to follow.

Don’t get us wrong; the natural flow of conversation requires implied, unstated meaning and inference. If I ask you if you’d like a cup of coffee and you say yes, it would be super weird if I responded with “Okay, I was just curious,” and walked away. My intention to actually bring you a cup is implied intentionally, by me, and you correctly infer that my next move will be to do just that.

Inference is essential, so essential that we do it automatically, unconsciously, and instantly. We’re actually really good at it, but that’s the danger. We are really good, but not perfect, and our errors tend to come at exactly the wrong time.

  1. Beware the impliference! Remember that it is you doing the inferring, not them doing the implying. You are reacting to your story about what happened, not what actually happened. We are not suggesting you should be blind to reality or naive. While the vast majority of people are not jerks with bad intentions, some people really are. Your negative inference could be on point, but it’s worth taking time to be sure, because the relationship is at stake if you’re wrong. Challenge your impliferences! Stop impliferating! (Okay, I promise I'll stop using that word).
  2. Make up three new stories. Force yourself to come up with three alternate explanations for the other person’s words or actions. Try to make them positive, or at least neutral. They don’t have to be right or even likely, just possible. Why three? Because it forces you to take enough time to allow your more rational prefrontal cortex to assert itself over your reactive amygdala. It reminds you that our negative inferences are often just wrong.

The impliference, mixing up your inference with their implication, confusing what actually happened with your story about what happened, is but one of many sources of conversation breakdown. Next week, we’ll discuss time travel, our tendency to bring the past into the present.

In the meantime, schedule an executive coaching session with us. We’d love to help you have better conversations with the people who matter to you. And finally, if you found this helpful, pass it along to someone else who might benefit.


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