Saturday, 7 September 2013

"I don't understand"

People avoid saying these words like the plague, especially in the workplace.  Instead of saying "I don't understand" when something sounds foreign, contemporary culture encourages people to pretend as if they know.  Most are seldom honest when they don't grasp an explanation or reason, through fear of looking ignorant and incompetent.  

Popular ripostes like these don't help:

"You should know this, it's simple."
"I explained this before."
"It's your job to know."

Something's wrong when it's better to acknowledge an explanation based on a facile understanding instead of being honest.  Those with ill-placed intentions use the phobia of appearing ignorant to their advantage.  Ever worked with a service provider, salesman or supplier who over-complicates things?

Before feeling foolish for not understanding however, remember the reason for an explanation in the first place: something is being explained to you because in all likelihood the other party needs you to understand, as only when you understand will an agreement will be reached.  It can be a broker trying to sell you life insurance, a colleague working on a project with you or a staff member assisting you.  They can roll their eyes, adopt an impatient tone or huff and puff, but at the end of it all they need you to comprehend what they're saying.  There's some form of incentive for them, otherwise they wouldn't be explaining to you in the first place.

Secondly you are not obliged to understand someone's convoluted and unnecessarily complicated explanation.  When a person intentionally selects complicated words where simpler ones will suffice it's usually a cover up or attempt to deceive.  If "I don't understand" sounds too foolish for you, you can interrupt them with:

"Please explain in layman's terms."
"Sorry, I didn't catch that, please repeat."

Alternatively if you have some sort of understanding, you can re-phrase what's being explained to you to confirm it.  The other party will either acknowledge your paraphrasing as correct or explain again if you're incorrect:

"So essentially you're saying element X and Y yield compound Z, right?"
"Ah, and the stronger dollar has reduced the cost of manufacture."

As someone with a commercial background, I would sometimes drive engineers up the wall asking them to explain the same technical process or specification repeatedly.  But their annoyance was a small price to pay for making an informed decision.  After months of questioning and requests to re-phrase, I began to get the gist of what they were conveying more easily...and my questions became fewer.  

If you're not frank enough you can find yourself nodding in agreement to something you have little grasp of.  A deal can subsequently be signed based on this superficial understanding.  Zero or partial comprehension can have dire consequences.  The idea is to have things explained to you in your terms and language.  To pretend to understand is to suffer in silence.

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