Sharon Sayler

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Understanding is a two way street

Are you sure you understand?

Are you sure you are being understood?

Let’s get right to the heart of the overall problem. Too often time is wasted, mistakes made, and conflict arises because of misunderstandings.

I’ve found that most people know roughly what they want, but do not take the time to clearly think it through.  Or worse, they know what they don’t want, not what they want. This is how we end up with ambiguous, muddled or unclear messages. Without a clear understanding of our desired end results, our thoughts are disorganized and we can easily confuse the listener.  Once we are clear on the outcome(s) how do we make sure we are understood?

Same Words, Different Worlds. Part 1

You may be in the same business, have the same degrees, worked side-by-side for years, yet still not understand…. How can that happen?

You may have been together for years, through thick and thin, in sickness and in health and still not be understood….  How can that happen?

Let’s take a simple example: Giving your assistant directions.

You verbally give them the project directions and all seems good. You finish up with specifically saying “Is that clear – do you understand?” With complete verbal and nonverbal conviction you saw and heard a resounding “Yes, I understand.”  “Great”, you reply, “I need it by Tuesday.” “No problem” you hear as you walk out the door… only Tuesday comes around and ~

A: You got what you wanted, done perfectly!  Hooray!  “I have the perfect assistant”, you shout, “I’m so smart for hiring them”.

B. You got what you wanted, sorta…. Humm, disappointment spoils your mood…. “What’s wrong with them, they said they understood”.

C: You get nothing like what you thought you asked for… Double hummm, beyond disappointment spoiling your mood you shout to yourself, “I knew I should have done it myself, at least, it would have been done right.”

D. You get nothing… You check back and they are frozen, paralyzed because they thought they understood then realized they didn’t.

Unfortunately, B, C, and D happen more often then A.

Why, what went wrong, it all seemed so clear?

Sorry, but it was probably YOU!

Yup you!

It was in the way you asked if all was good to go.

How can that be, I hear you saying; I said “Do you understand?” and I heard (and saw) a resounding YES!

Know that it’s not enough to leave with the closing words “Is this clear? or “Do you understand?

The answer will inevitably be “yes” and maybe even a “yes” with a tad bit tone of annoyance accompanying it.

Why will the answer almost always be yes?

Because they understand, what they understand. They don’t know what they don’t know. Yes, that sounds too simplistic, almost silly, but stay with me, their “yes” was a sincere yes. We have the mistaken assumption that by replying “yes”, they understand everything they must know to satisfactorily complete the project, make a decision etc.

They honestly don’t know they don’t know everything they need to know, that you know and/or can they possibly view it in the same way.

Just because you both speak the same language doesn’t mean that all words have the same meaning. Many words are cultural jargon, regionally have different meanings or spark an emotional response that is unanticipated.

I just got back from a trip to the east coast of Florida, where in talking with a friend they started ribbing me about what I liked about the Pacific Northwest as it was “gray and wet the 9 times out of 10 they had been there…”. One of many things, I mentioned was the beautiful trees made it worth it.  To which he pointed out in front of us and said, “We have trees.”  “Seriously,” I snarked back, “Palm trees?!… You are comparing that to thousand-year old redwoods, stories high cedars, and the wind-blown sculptures of myrtlewood…  (Now, no emails  please, I’m not comparing what tree is more valid, I love all trees – our exchange was all in good fun.)

We each have our own understandings of words, our own filters of meaning, when someone asks visualize a tree…. his sees palm trees, I see redwoods  – yes, I know both are trees…. Yet, say the word tree to me and I see a towering evergreen. Say the word tree to my companion and he sees palm fronds and coconuts, very different results if you asked us each to paint a picture of a tree for you.  The same words is not a guarantee of understanding even if one has shared experiences.

How do you minimize the chance of confusion? 

7 Tips to Being Understood Quickly and Easily The First Time.

#1 Answer the WIIFM question first. Make sure the listener understands the relevance. People want to know “what do you need from me?” or “what’s in it for me?” Answer this question quickly. Skip long introductions, backgrounds, compliments and details. Jump to the point. State it clearly using minimal words.

#2 Stick to the facts. Too much backstory can cause confusion. Often we feel compelled to go into all the gritty details most of the time they are not necessary. Unless asked, you don’t need to overly elaborate anything.

# 3 Use active verbs. Active verbs help to energize your conversation. Instead of “The project will be done by Pam,” write: “Pam will do the project.” Use the straightforward — subject, verb, object —  sentence structure.

# 4 Use simple words. Leave the million dollar words for your dissertation. This isn’t about anyone being simple-minded, it adds to the clarity of the message. If you make it too fancy you can force your listener to go running for their mental dictionary. The ears close when someone is running for their mental dictionary. With the ears figuratively closed, they aren’t listening to what is said next. A good place for misunderstanding to creep in.

# 4.5 Besides someone running to their mental dictionary too often, words can have more than one meaning, as was the case of my friend’s and my discussion of trees, especially if the language the directions are given in are not the listener’s first language.

# 5 Ask open-ended questions. You both can gain clarity by asking open-ended questions. An open-ended question is one that cannot be answered yes or no.  Have them describe not only the plan or steps to get to the goal, have them describe their vision of success for the assignment. Your job is to listen and not interrupt with corrections or additions. Once they have finished describing their “understanding” it is time for clarification, corrections, additions, follow-up and asking if they have ideas to add to make the project a success, then review.

# 6 Take notes.  Pretty self-explanatory. I prefer the nonverbal of paper and pen for note-taking. Blackberry, iPad, and other devices have other nonverbal meanings such as disinterest. I like to finish any conversation where understanding is paramount by telling them I will use the notes I just took to send them a follow-up email and to reply back with any questions, comments or concerns.

# 7 Go visual. You know what they say, a picture is worth many words and even a picture made out of words such as a poster, written agenda or checklist are great for reinforcing long-term memory, and repetition helps people understand. The follow-up email mentioned in Tip #2 is another way of going visual and the repetition helps people understand and see areas where they might not be as clear as they thought.

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