Do You Understand?

By Chris Chittenden

“Imagination is a poor matter when it has to part company with understanding.”

… Thomas Carlyle (1795 - 1881) Scottish essayist, historian

When most people think of effective communication they think of getting the message across. They believe that being clear is the key and this will generate a similar understanding with the other person. Even though we hold this is a very narrow approach to communication, a shared understanding of a situation is vital if two or more people are going to work or live together effectively.

One of the most common ways that a person confirms they have communicated effectively is through a very simple question, “Do you understand?” When they get a “yes”, the assumption is that they have communicated what they want to the other person. Ironically, this approach to determining whether or not communication has been effective also opens the way for many miscommunications.

The reason for this lies in the question. When it is asked, the speaker generally wants to confirm a shared understanding. However what do they really find out from the other person? The simple answer is they find out that the other thinks they do or don’t understand what has been said. They do not find out what they actually do understand. The assumption is that in saying “yes” the understanding on both sides of the conversation is the same. Hence in many instances, two people leave a conversation believing they have a shared understanding of the situation when they do not. This leads to situations where different outcomes are sought and different actions are potentially taken than might be expected if the understanding was shared.

One way for us to generate more shared understanding in conversations is to change the way in which we confirm the other person’s perception of what is meant. Rather than asking, ”Do you understand?”, we can ask something like, “Just so that I am sure that I have been clear, can you please tell me your understanding of this situation?” The context part of the question, “Just so that I am sure that I have been clear, …” is there to generate a feeling that I am not asking this question because you may be too stupid to understand. Hopefully it will generate a feeling that I am checking that I have communicated well to the other person. Such an open question is likely to generate a response whereby we can check if the other person is close to the mark in our own meaning. This then allows us the opportunity to refine any areas where we think there might be a misunderstanding before moving the conversation forward.

The “do you understand?” question or something similar is often asked habitually and as a way of closing a conversation rather than checking for understanding. Consider your own conversations. Are you genuinely seeking to check a shared understanding? Could you be more effective in the way in which you do so?

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© 2007 Chris Chittenden