How Do You Know People Have Understood You?

Christopher Witt —  May 20, 2015

Check for comprehensinoCan you ever be sure people know what you’re talking about?

We often assume that people understand us – what we mean, what we intend, and what we want. But, sadly, it isn’t always the case.

People who are seemingly smart and good-willed all too frequently misinterpret what we say. And, to be honest, we aren’t always as clear as we think we are.

I learned this lesson from my parents. They were college professors. They were bright and articulate. They were married for 48 years, and even at the end they managed to misunderstand each other frequently.

So how can you know that you’ve got your point across and, furthermore, that people have understood you?

Whether you’re talking to one person or to many: Don’t ask, “Did you understand what I said?”

Why not?

Most people will say, “Yes, I understand,” or they won’t say anything at all, because:

  1. They think they’ve understood you even though they haven’t.
  2. They’re embarrassed (especially in a group setting) to tell you they have no idea what you’re talking about.
  3. They don’t want to embarrass you by implying that you haven’t explained yourself well.

Instead of asking, “Did you understand?”, say “I want to make sure I made myself clear. Can you tell me what you heard me say?”

When you say it that way, you take responsibility for any miscommunication. If they don’t understand what you said, it isn’t their fault. It doesn’t mean that they’re stupid or that they weren’t paying attention. It just means that you – both of you – have to try again.

Under those conditions, they may admit that they don’t understand what you said. This gives you a chance to try again. (Don’t simply repeat what you said the first time. Explain yourself in a completely different way.)

Or they may tell you what they think you said. If they understood you, that’s great. If not, that’s good too because you know what they’re thinking and how you need to correct it

Don’t assume that you’ve communicated your ideas, needs, or feelings simply because you’ve stated them to the best of your ability. Check it out. Ask people not if but how they’ve understood what you said.

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Christopher Witt

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Chris Witt was born in Los Angeles, California. He currently lives in San Diego. He works as a speech and presentations consultant, an executive speech coach, and an orals coach.