3.8 Checking That You Have Been Understood Clearly And Completely

Rather than assume you are getting through, take the trouble to check it out. There are different ways to do this, from asking directly for a summary to listening to your partner’s responses for signs of misunderstanding.

a. Providing summaries

A good way to promote fuller understanding is to summarise your main points every once in a while. The idea is to pull all the threads of the conversation together in order to check whether your story is clear, your message and its implications have hit home, your point of view has been captured, or your case is being made. And, since summaries often have a ‘winding things up’ aspect to them, they are implicit invitations to have a dialogue.

A couple of examples:

In the first, Lucy has been talking with Mick about searching their calendars in order to find a long weekend when they can go visit some friends together. Mick's schedule is flexible, Lucy's is not.

Lucy summarises the dialogue to this point: "So, between family affairs and work commitments, February is out for both of us. The first and third weekends in March are okay for me so far, but the Easter weekend in early April is filled with family stuff. The first weekend in June is also open. So, between now and the end of June those three dates seem to be it. We should check with Anna and Bob as soon as possible."

Mick replies, "Oh, I missed the third weekend in March. Good. We've got three possibilities. I'll call and try to firm something up today."

Lucy's summary of her commitments gives Mick the opportunity to catch something he's missed. The clarification opened up another possible date.

Summaries can be used with stories, messages, points of view, and cases. Whenever any of these are complex, it helps to pepper the dialogue with mini-summaries.

In a meeting with his brother and sister, Ray says, "The arrangements for mum and dad's fortieth are proving more difficult than I thought. Let's see what ground we've covered so far." He goes on to provide a mini-summary of the main points they have covered.

If the message being delivered is an important one, with serious implications, then summaries are almost essential. Arthur, who runs shipping operations for a publisher, is talking with his team of supervisors.

Arthur says, "It's important that we leave this meeting with a very clear idea of our three major challenges for this coming quarter. First, we have to eliminate mis-shipments. With the new computer system there is no reason for mis-shipments. Second, customers must receive their Guides on, or before, the date promised. This means revamping our scheduling process. Third, we have to find a way of handling legitimate returns more expeditiously. This means a change in attitude. Handling returns well is just as much a part of customer service as shipping. Two questions. To what degree is there agreement on these challenges? And how do we make sure it all happens?"

Summaries do not necessarily signal the end of the dialogue. Arthur's supervisors may well have questions about these challenges and creative ideas about how to meet them. And so Arthur invites the team members to have a dialogue in order to get clarity and move on to problem solving.

In the next example, Luther and Kirstin have had a good dialogue about their plans for a visit to Glasgow, where they both have relatives. Each has played both the Explainer/Teller and the Understander role.

At this point, Luther volunteers a summary, saying, "If I've got this right, we both want to spend no more than a week there, but your main concern is to get there before the crowds arrive. That probably means April or May, rather than June, July or August. And we'd both like to have your mother come along. But she still isn't sure if she can take the time off work. So this leaves a bit of a question mark."

Kirstin replies, "That's about right. So, we'll have to find out the deadline for making final arrangements and let my mother know. If she can make it, great. If not, we can do something together later in the year … Hey, here's another possibility! If she's free in September or early October, we could all go then. Kids will be back in school and the crowds will be gone."

Luther's summary demonstrates that they are both in agreement. The summary does not end things. Rather it has an invitational quality. In fact, it kicks off further thinking on Kirstin's part.

When you're making a case, summarising for clarity and impact, is often very important. You want to keep the key ideas in front of your conversational partners.

In the following example, Gavin is talking with his wife, Bridget, about their living arrangements. Both of them work. He is making a case for continuing to rent rather than buy a house. There has been a lot of give-and-take so far.

At this point, Gavin provides a summary. "Here's how I read what we've said so far. Renting has an upside and a downside. The upside. We're both very busy. Renting means we are not responsible for all those household tasks we both hate — fixing the plumbing and so on. Also, in the current housing market, the economics of renting are better than buying. Remember the newspaper article with all the examples of when renting has more advantages than owning? We're both mobile and want to stay that way. Renting cuts down enormously on the hassles of selling a house and moving.

"But there's a downside. If we rent, it's not really ‘our’ place. There are things we can't change. We can't personalise it the way we want. There aren’t many houses to rent around here. Mostly flats. And if we live in a flat, we can't choose the people who live on the other side of our living room, or bedroom, wall. Finally, when we want to start a family, we won't have an established home in an established community."

Bridget chimes in, saying, "That sounds fair. It strikes me that joining a housing corporation scheme might be a good idea — you know, a combination of ownership and renting. At least it would be ours. But what we haven’t done is talk about which advantages we want the most and which disadvantages we want to avoid the most … And, as you know, the timing of starting a family needs some serious discussion."

Gavin's summary provides a couple of openings for Bridget. She seizes them. What she says sets the stage for further dialogue.

Summaries often act as a stimulus for getting a conversation out of a rut or for developing it further. The unspoken message is something like this: "Here, in capsule form, is what we've been saying so far. So now let's move on."

A practical note. Many of our everyday conversations are about reaching agreements of one kind or another. For instance, who is going to do what in, say, preparing for a get-together. If we could all get into the habit of summarising what's been agreed, a huge amount of misunderstanding could be eliminated. Though one wonders what the world would be like without statements like, "I thought you said that you were going to pick up the laundry. What happened?"

b. Asking for summaries

Instead of merely providing summaries, you can also ask those in the Understander role to give you a summary. You do this, not as a challenge to test their understanding, but to check your own success at communicating your ideas and to help them understand.

Let's take a very simple example.

How many times have you asked people for directions? Let's say you’re driving in an area you don't know at all. You ask for directions. A friendly local gives you directions, but they are rather complicated. In such situations, you don't want to seem either stupid or ungrateful, so you thank him, or her even though the directions are not completely clear to you. You say to yourself, "I'll remember the first couple of turns, then I'll ask again."

What if the person giving you the instructions were to say to you, "I know this sounds complicated. It might be helpful if you repeat them back to me. I don't want to embarrass you, but I want to make sure they're in your head. I wouldn't want you to get lost." You do your best to repeat the instructions. When you make a mistake, he gently corrects you. Although this process is hugely useful, it doesn't happen very often.

Consider this case. Adam and his wife, Pamela, have been discussing what approach to take to patching things up with their neighbours. Against advice, they launched into a rehabilitation project that involved digging up their backyard. Resolute DIY-ers, they "knew what they were doing." Well, they didn't. They cut through some cables and caused havoc in the area. In the conversation, Pamela has been developing a plan. Adam has made a few remarks, but you wouldn’t say that he has gone overboard in feeding back highlights, or asking clarifying questions. He has indicated that he, too, might have an idea or two on how to handle the situation, but his ideas remain buried inside.

Pamela says, "It would be very helpful to hear your ideas. But first, do me a favour. Give me your reading of what I've proposed. And tell me what you like and don't like. We do this all the time to each other - half listen and then misinterpret what the other said. We end up in an uproar. I'm as guilty as you. Let's take this as an experiment and see if it helps."

If those in the Understander role would feed back highlights as a matter of course, asking for summaries would not be as necessary. But in complicated matters, they are usually very helpful. Asking for summaries is also a way of inviting the other person to dialogue.

c. Checking for clarity

If, as suggested in the introductory section, misunderstanding is frequent and perhaps the norm, it's important for you to know that your conversational partners are clear about the key facets of your story, the main points of your message, the highlights of your point of view, or the central factors of your case. Summaries help a great deal, but even summaries can be misunderstood.

There are two ways of checking more directly for understanding. First, check for clues that you have been understood. Second, ask directly.

Looking for clues

As every comedian or public speaker knows, an audience can provide all sorts of clues about how well the performance is going down. After ‘reading’ the audience's reaction, the experienced performer might say to himself: "My timing seems to be off. I need to slow down a bit." Or the speaker at a conference might say to herself, "Their eyes are beginning to wander. I had better cut this short and end with a bang."

Good communicators, when in the Explainer/Teller role, also look for clues in the other person's reaction to what they are saying. One valuable source of information is, as we have seen, body language - everything from facial expressions to hand movements and posture. Some common warning signs are: wandering eyes, fiddling fingers, shuffling feet, a secret glance at a watch, and a slumping posture.

Not all clues are nonverbal. The ways in which Understanders respond provide the best clues. Consider Virginia. She has been telling her oldest son, who is married and has three children of his own, that he doesn't have to spend as much time as he does ‘watching out’ for her. She thinks he's stealing too much time from his own family. And, anyway, she is not as ‘helpless’ as he sees her to be. She is trying to get these messages across to him on one of his many visits.

At one point she says, "Owen, I actually enjoy the daily household chores. I remember a minister once saying, ‘These are the little tasks that purify us.’ I believe that. They get me out of myself. The day you come over here and find me sitting around and the house in a mess, that's the day you can begin to wonder."

He responds, "Don't worry, Mum, I'm not going to abandon you. I enjoy coming over. It's not a burden, you know."

His response shows her clearly that her message is still not getting across. She couldn't have a better clue.

She looks him in the eye and asks, "What do I have to do to get through to you?"

He looks startled and says, "What do you mean?"

She goes on to tell him clearly, forcefully, and caringly what she means.

Of course, before challenging others on the way they are listening to you, challenge yourself on how you’re doing in the Explainer/Teller role. Ask yourself what you can do to get your story, point of view, message, or case across more effectively. If you’re in true dialogue mode, you will instinctively check for clues.

Sometimes your conversational partners will only partly understand the points you have been making because they have not been listening, you have not been clear enough, or the subject matter is difficult. Check for clues. Let's say that you have been talking with your friend Harold, trying to figure out the best way to look for a new job without giving yourself away at your present place of employment.

Harold suggests a way and then adds, "And only a couple of the guys at work will know. But certainly not your boss."

It's clear that you didn't get across clearly enough the message that you don't want anyone at work to know.

You can add, "Actually, I don't want anyone at work to know that I'm searching. The place is too small. Everyone there talks to everyone else."

Looking for clues and then checking goes only so far. If your conversational partner is relatively unresponsive, you might have to check directly.

Checking directly

Another way of confirming whether you’re getting your key points over clearly and that your conversational partner has understood, is simply to ask one way or another. Things like, "Does any of this make any sense?" Or, "I'm not sure if I've made myself clear. I'd like to know what you've picked up from what I've said."

In the following interchange, Billy, a supervisor in a factory, has been talking with one of his team members, Caroline, about checking the goods received from a new supplier. Caroline has said nothing up to this point.

Billy finally says, "I'm not sure whether all of this is making sense to you."

Caroline replies, "I think it does. You want me to check the supplies carefully when they come in because it's a new supplier. Once it's clear that they're doing a good job, then we can let up and just take samples from random shipments. Makes sense to me."

It would have been nice had Caroline provided some clues along the way.

There are many different ways of inviting the other person to feed back their understanding. Here are a couple more examples. Tracy has been explaining to one of her students how a software programme works. At one point she says, "These last two steps are critical. It would help me to know that we're both on the same page."

If you check directly for understanding either too often or too blatantly, the other person could well think, "She must think I'm stupid." So reserve your requests for confirmation for the bigger points, or for the end of a chunk of conversation. It's better to take a preventive approach. If your conversation partners are not ‘spontaneous dialoguers’, bring them in early on and more frequently.

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