Checking for Understanding – Part 1

Posted on 12th September 2017


Welcome to the Business Empathy Forum and thank you for your visit. With this post I pivot to an aspect of business empathy that is of particular interest to me and to many of my clients: top-level executive communication. In posts to come I will offer a range of practical suggestions and explanations that will sharpen communication and build credibility for executives, aspiring leaders, and anyone else who applies them. As always, I hope these tips and insights will be useful.

Best Practice for Leadership and Empathy

Best Practice: Checking for Understanding
An important habit for any leader or executive is to consistently confirm understanding of facts, assumptions, and issues. Having the discipline to ‘slow things down’ in order to check your understanding is a visible indicator of effective listening, strategic discipline, and general professionalism. This habit will deepen your insight into the challenges your business or organization is facing at the same time it enhances your credibility and empathy with others. If you are not in the habit of confirming understanding of important points during meetings and conversations, this may be a good time to start.

An Example
When checking for understanding it is important to be clear and well-structured, without saying more than is necessary. Note the clarity and structure of the following example, with its short introductory sentence, three key content points, and then a quick and courteous closing phrase:

“Excuse me, David, but before you discuss the spending plans I’d like to confirm my understanding of what you’ve said. I heard three important points: Revenue is down 10 percent in the last quarter, and that will impact profitability and cash flow going into the new business year. We’re not sure why revenue has dropped so quickly, but it looks like we are losing market share to a competitor’s new model. Finally, given these concerns, we are revisiting the capital spending plans for next year and we are about to see those now. Have I understood everything correctly? Thanks very much and I apologize for the interruption.”

Analysis of the Intervention
Note three critical things that are accomplished in the first sentence of the example above. These set the stage for the entire intervention:

  • You begin with showing courtesy to the speaker and the audience by saying ‘Excuse me’ and then by using his or her name. This softens the impact of the interruption and makes people more likely to pay attention.
  • You immediately explain the reason for your interruption – ‘… to confirm my understanding of what you’ve said…’— so that people realize that you are making a positive contribution to the conversation. And finally,
  • You provide structure by encouraging the audience to listen for three key points. This indication of where the conversation is going next is called ‘telegraphing’ and is an effective way to hold the attention of an audience. It is also a subtle way to direct their focus to the most important issues.

Intervening in this way means that you are being assertive in a good cause: you want to confirm correct understanding – for yourself as well as for others – before moving on to the next topic of the meeting or conversation. And you are providing structure for the audience, keeping the spotlight on key issues and modeling strategic communication in a way that adds value.

Once you have highlighted the key points as you understand them – in this case the drop in revenue, the loss of market share, and the need to revisit spending plans – you close your intervention with a sentence that accomplishes several things: you remind everyone that you have briefly interrupted the flow of the meeting in order to improve understanding, and you give David a chance to confirm, add to, or correct your interpretation. He is now free to respond in the way he sees fit, and you have given ‘the floor’ or ‘the word’ back to him in a gracious and efficient manner.

Your focus here is on clarity and deeper understanding for the entire group. You are aware of time constraints and are courteous to your colleagues. Finally, you are concise and organized, subtly re-stating things for the group in order to build shared understanding of the facts. When you do this well you can subtly influence a conversation, yet do it without talking too much or grabbing the spotlight.

Having analyzed the structure of the intervention, in the next post I will turn to three more aspects of checking for understanding: the impact on your audience and their perception of you; skills needed to make the intervention work; and several risks to be aware of when using this technique.

Good luck, and until next time…