… you don’t understand it well enough.
This phrase, usually credited to Albert Einstein (although this is not actually verified), has become an underappreciated truism thrown around rather carelessly in my opinion. Personally, it’s a cornerstone motto for me, with a slight variation:
If you can’t explain it clearly enough, you don’t understand it well enough.
When I was a young teenager, I learned at some point that I could defend myself against bullying with my wits, or hide in typically anti-social endeavours like reading books and exploring Internet forums. Basically, I became a nerd and somehow picked up on the idea that having a big vocabulary was going to make me sound smarter. I started using big words that I didn’t even properly understand myself, and whilst occasionally I’d get caught out, or confuse others, a lot of times I’d just sound like I knew what I was talking about.
This served me really well in some ways; and was terrible in others. For a long time it reinforced an obnoxious teenage arrogance in me - born out of deep seated insecurities - at a time where adolescent hormones were doing that job pretty well on their own.
It wasn’t until years later that I started to appreciate that it was possible to be “too smart for my own good”, and there was tremendous value in actually NOT being the smartest person in the room - at least not feeling the need to be.
However, moving forward with this evolved understanding, especially in the workplace, I became astutely aware of other people who hadn’t quite gotten over this particular teenage insecurity of needing to be the smartest person in the room, and they’d usually not even realise it.
They’d usually express this not just by using sophistimacated-sounding words rather than speaking in plain language, but also:
over-planning projects, and
I can guarantee that if you’re still reading, you know someone like this. Dare I say, at least sometimes, you might even be someone like this.
So, what can we do about it? Well first, a more fundamental question.
Why do people fail to explain things simply and clearly enough?
“Of course I understand it well enough, and therefore explain it clearly enough, but my audience is just. not. getting it!”
Taking the time to slow down and actually consider whether you understand something well enough or not is a challenging skill that requires a high level of self-awareness, and a willingness to look at our shadows (blindspots about our insecurities and self-esteem) that can feel very confronting.
It can be easier to just believe (sometimes at the level of outright self-delusion) that you understand what you want to say perfectly well, have explained it perfectly clearly, and your audience is just not getting it, than confront the notion that maybe you need to understand what’s going on in your head a little better at a fundamental level.
“I do explain it simply and clearly, but the responsibility for you to understand what’s going on in my head is yours, not mine.”
Most people are not quite obnoxious enough to say this out loud. And a lot of people I’ve met in leadership positions won’t even realise that they hold this belief. However, a lot of those people will believe that the responsibility lies with both parties, because communication is a 2 way thing after all.
It sounds fair enough but the problem with this is that it’s laden with presuppositions.
You presuppose that your audience has a similar, if not identical, style of expression as you.
You presuppose that their general ability of comprehension will be similar enough to yours so they should meet you halfway to pick up your message/request and be able to act on it exactly as you want.
And perhaps most dangerously, you presuppose that because your explaination sounds simple enough to you, it is simple enough for your audience.
Very often these presuppositions just don’t hold true.
I’m a firm believer in the exact opposite of this notion of balanced responsibility. I will work to the bone to simplify my explanation of my message/idea/request until I’m quite certain that my audience understands it. I’ll share a bit about how I do this later.
By taking FULL responsibility for being understood, I can usually avoid the frustrations that come with wishing the other person would just get what I’m trying to give. Instead, it allows me to maintain a level of compassion and patience, with the understanding that everyone has their own unique filters of interpretation, and place their own meanings onto words. So, if they don’t undertand me, I’m probably just not speaking their language and I may even be oversimplifying myself to the point of being vague and ambiguous.
“I do explain things simply and clearly enough, because my audience tells me they understand, but their actions don’t reflect this!”
Chances are that you do have a decent grasp of what you’re wanting to communicate, and you’re probably a well-intentioned person too. Chances are also pretty high that if people are telling you that they understand what you’re saying, but then they end up responding in a way that shows they really don’t, there is a combination problem:
Firstly, you’re not actually explaining yourself clearly “enough” in a way that you can confirm accurate comprehension. Secondly, you’re likely dealing with someone who suffers the same kind of insecurities we’ve discussed in this article, and is very much afraid of saying, “I don’t understand, can you please explain it more?” in case it makes them look like an idiot. They could also simply be intimidated by you, because you may have unwittingly punished them in the past for seeking clarification from you, or for making a mistake in interpreting what you were trying to say.
So how do you deal with someone like that while taking full responsibility for the communication?
It starts with self-awareness of all the above points/excuses/delusions. And there are a few key principles to help you generally ensure you’re explaining things simply “enough”.
How do I make sure I’m explaining myself clearly enough?
Commit to a regular practice of self-reflection, and check for blindspots relating to the 3 claims discussed above.
Assume full responsibility for being understood in any situation. If you find out later that you were misunderstood, accept that misunderstandings happen in life, and take the opportunity to learn how you could communicate even more simply in the future, to avoid ambiguities in understanding what you’re saying.
Care about your audience more than you care about your message/request/idea. Coming from a place of compassion will give you the patience and perspective you need to understand how your audience needs to hear what you have to say, and will help you take responsibility of the only thing you can actually control in an interaction anyway - yourself.
Ask for confirmation, but don’t be condescending or patronising about it. Specifically how you do this is to phrase your requests for confirmation along the lines of, “Could you help me make sure I’ve explained myself clearly enough?” rather than, “Could you confirm that you’ve understood me properly?”
It may not seem like it, but there isn’t a fine line between those 2 questions - there is a great, double-bricked wall lined with armed soldiers on one side, and kittens and puppies on the other.
If you seek confirmation with the mindset that you’ve either explained yourself clearly enough or you haven’t, rather than the mindset that your audience may or may not have understood you properly, you will make them feel much safer in asking you to clarify further if needed.
A couple of advanced tips for leaders
When you’re talking to a subordinate, or generally anyone that looks to you as a leader, it’s even more important that you prioritise their feeling safe to ask clarifying questions. Sometimes they just won’t have this foundational skill to begin with, in which case you can encourage them by keeping your initial message short and simple, and then proposing to them, “Can you ask me some questions that would help me explain this a bit more thoroughly?”
When you’re expressing a request for someone to execute on, think about the outcome you’re looking for at the other end of any process that could be taken to get there, or the specific problem you’re trying to solve, and explain that outcome or problem with an appropriate level of context.
Doing so will empower the other person to figure out how they get to that outcome or solve that problem in the best way possible, and usually this will naturally encourage them to clarify your request with you before they get to work.
If you start proposing specifics about the process or solution, you’ll not only almost always come across as authoritation (thereby making the person feel less safe with you), but you’ll also almost always limit the creative and critical thinking abilities of the person you’re asking to help you, and likely prevent them from getting you the best possible solution.
Do NOT ask, “Do you understand?” or “Are you following what I’m saying?” or “Does that make sense to you?”. Instead ask questions like, “Would you like me to elaborate on anything about what I’ve said?”, “Would you like me to explain anything more specifically or in more detail about this?”, “Do you have all the information you need to get started or can I help you with any more details?”, and “I hope I’ve explained myself clearly enough. Did you want to ask me anything about what I’ve said to confirm?”
A lot of the above advice will feel counter-intuitive to you at first. You may feel that it’s slower and more inefficient than just being very thorough and specific in your explanations, particularly when you’re asking someone to do something for you. But give it a go. Release your grip on how things are done a little, and see what it does for your relationships and overall productivity. And do let me know how it works out for you after a couple of weeks of trying to consciously care more about your audience than your message.
A big part of what I do professionally is help simplify complex ideas so that they can be communicated more clearly, effectively and efficiently.
This comes in handy when you’re trying to get a group of business leaders to make important strategic decisions, and when you have a limited time to pitch an idea to prospective investors, customers, or other backers who need to get what you’re selling quickly and also be compelled to believe in it.
I also work with business leaders at various levels to help them develop their ability to explain themselves more simply and, more broadly, communicate in a more powerful and influential way.
If you need some help in this area, get in touch.