Checking for Understanding – Part 2

Posted on 27th September 2017


In this post I continue my analysis of top-level executive communication with more on Checking for Understanding. I analyzed a well-structured confirmation of understanding in a prior post, and here I comment on three more elements: the impact on your image; skills that make it work; and several caveats.

Best Practice for Leadership and Empathy

Impact on the audience and their perception of you
What will the audience think when you confirm understanding in a structured and concise way?

  • You are assertive and confident enough to speak up, and doing so with courtesy and respect for the speaker and audience. In terms of tone you want to be assertive and confident, but not
  • You are listening carefully to the entire conversation. Being a good listener is a key leadership skill and checking for understanding shows that you are listening well.
  • You are concise and organized, putting your thoughts into an easily-understood structure and keeping ‘airtime’ to a minimum. Remember: if you communicate clearly people will infer that your mind works in the same way.
  • You are fact-based and methodical, ensuring understanding before moving to other issues. These traits generate trust: we want our leaders to be fact-based and careful. Earn trust through the way you express yourself.
  • Finally, some may understand that you are consciously performing a service for the entire group, capturing key points and creating space for correction or elaboration before moving to the next phase of the conversation.

These add to your strategic and professional credibility. Checking for understanding makes you a more effective thinker and a better communicator.

Which communication skills make this technique work?
These key skills will make you more effective as you confirm understanding:

  • Listening: it all starts here. Listening well is a foundational skill for leaders and for empathy: we learn when we listen, not when we speak.
  • Timing: when you intervene in this way you are interrupting the flow of a meeting or conversation. Don’t worry: it is in a good cause and you will do it well. Watch and listen for the sensible moment to intervene.
  • Structure and conciseness. Don’t think aloud: organize your thoughts before you speak. Be brief: you are intervening with a confirmation of understanding, not a presentation of your own. Brevity and clarity are your friends.
  • Finally, have a sense of the situation: who is in the room? What are their agendas? Is there a reason – hierarchy, perhaps? – to remain silent? Be aware of your surroundings and context and act accordingly.

What are some risks of confirming understanding?

  • Interrupting the flow of a meeting or conversation. Confirming understanding is generally a good thing, but there may be reasons to keep silent (time is short, bigger priorities, outsiders present, etc.).
  • Don’t talk too much. Checking understanding is good practice, but ‘blah, blah’ is not. Be concise and considerate.
  • Missing the obvious. Listen and observe carefully.
  • Making your own argument. Confirming understanding is not the time to make your case for or against.
  • Stepping on someone’s agenda: be aware of ‘politics’ and individual priorities. If in doubt, ask questions rather than make statements.

Final Thoughts
Confirming understanding on a consistent basis is one of the most impactful things you can do to be a more effective professional. Taking the time and making the effort to check facts, assumptions, and issues – to pressure-test your understanding of the situation – will reduce errors, deepen strategic insight, encourage teamwork, and enhance your credibility as a leader. And in this age of digital communication and virtual teams, it will also add to the effectiveness and productivity of your far-flung virtual teams. Listen carefully, strive for clarity and structure, and ask questions!

Until next time!