Checking people understand what we mean

by Jo Ann Sweeney - 06:29 on 02 September 2014

Most of us, in meetings and presentations, explain what we mean in language we understand assuming others will take the same meaning from our words.

In real life this is rarely how it works! We couch our words in language to make our meaning more palatable. I had just such a conversation with my daughter on Sunday. She wanted me to hold off on a family celebration until we’d done some work on our house.

Towards the end of the conversation, after I’d agreed to what she wanted, I realised I didn’t really understand what she meant. She was shocked I asked for clarity as our conversation had indicated I understood.

Simple language

Using concrete words with single meanings that everyone understands helps, as does simple sentence constructions. Avoiding jargon and long words and in our heads asking ourselves what our words convey. These tips work just as well in print.

Ask good questions

Open-ended questions are a way of checking the other person understands what we mean as well as our own understanding of what they want. Try and ask questions that elicit their feelings and expectations, for instance ‘How do you think what you are proposing will impact our family/ team?

Uncover priorities

We all have shadow issues in our lives – things we are unaware of or don’t want to reveal – that shape what is important to us as well as how we behave and what we say. My daughter’s fear was that I would prioritise the family celebration whereas she wanted me to prioritise house repairs. Everything she asked for came from this fear, once I understood we made progress.

Understanding doesn’t equal agreement

It is good to let others know when we don’t agree with them, especially when we indicate we understand them. If they think we agree and we later surprise them by revealing disagreement it can damage our relationship.


Engagement Experts 2014 support network commences in September! Giving you fresh perspectives, space to think laterally beyond what you do each day and other experienced practitioners to think through challenges and ideas with. Full details here!

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