Understanding: Who’s Responsible for it?

Understanding Clients
Photo: Pixabay/Free-photos

I was sitting in a cafe the other day, enjoying a delicious latte, when I couldn’t help but overhear a conversation at another table that raised my ‘understanding hackles’ (yes, they do exist!)…

“But what my clients refuse to understand is just how big a discount I’m getting them!  Sometimes 20, 30, even 40% off retail…”  His frustration was evident to anyone within earshot.

This got me thinking.  Just who is responsible for making sure ‘understanding’ happens?

Well, you are.   Because nobody else can.

Here are three common situations where ‘lack of understanding’ is used as an excuse for less than ideal circumstances, and what you can do about it if you notice yourself slipping into “but they just don’t understand…”

Understanding the Complicated

Understanding Complexity
Photo: Pixabay/hypnoart

You know what?  Some things in the world are truly complicated.  Like quantum physics.  And AI.  And the Duckworth Lewis method for calculating run targets in rain-interrupted cricket…

But most things aren’t.  More often we just can’t be bothered.  Or we don’t take the time.

I worked in customer service (call centres) early in my career – in telecommunications, insurance and investments, in two different countries.  We had some pretty complicated products to provide support for.  Sure, we received training on the basics.  But we were motivated to understand!  We were about to have anywhere between 50 and 100 people quizzing us for answers on a daily basis!  If that doesn’t focus the mind, I don’t know what will.

But our customers?  They were dedicating maybe four minutes out of a whole year to asking this question.  And from that four minutes they wanted to come away feeling like they understood what they needed to know, and that they weren’t spoken down to, or treated like an idiot for not already knowing. (“What do you mean you don’t know the difference between actively-managed and passively-managed* funds… you bought it!”)

Most things can be explained to most people with a little effort.  Better still, if you’re in business, chances are the things that you think are too complicated for your customers to understand, are exactly the ones that most need to be understood by your customers…  and taking the time to create something that enables them to understand will be appreciated no end.  Nobody wants to feel stupid.

Try and remember that there was a time when you too, didn’t understand the complicated thing.  And if you can’t explain it simply, chances are pretty good that you still don’t.

So take some time – create an FAQ section for your website, or design an eBook or a video that explains it in plain English. Ask some people to test it for you to see if it works.  It’s the least you can do.

Understanding your Expectations

I’ve written before about the vital role that leaders play in providing hope and vision for their employees but leaders must also ensure that their expectations are understood.

Understanding Expectations
Photo: Pixabay/sophieja23

If you’ve ever found yourself scratching your head and saying “but that’s not what I wanted…” then chances are high that you’ve failed on this one.

As much as you might think that the ideas, thoughts and emotions bubbling round inside your brain are entirely logical, predictable, and readily understood by anyone, no-one else is thinking about you.  Sad, but true.

If you want people to do the things you think need to be done, you actually need to tell them.  Clearly.  Without ambiguity.  And not just once a year when you set performance expectations.

An employee who fails to read your mind has done nothing wrong, and ultimately, the buck stops with you.

So make time, regularly, to go through your to-do-list or key projects and make sure that everyone you’re expecting to contribute, understands what you expect of them.  Explicitly.

Understanding your Efforts

If you’re reading this, chances are pretty high that you’re a bit of an over-achiever.  Am I right?

So this one might resonate, even if the others so far, haven’t.

Understanding Effort
Photo: Shutterstock

You’ve not only delivered the project on time and within budget, but you’ve exceeded the client’s expectations, you’ve developed a ‘lessons learned’ presentation to share with your team, and you’ve written your boss’s project closure report so that she doesn’t have to…

…and yet no-one seems to understand how much trouble that was.  The late nights, the missed lunch breaks, the lack of a social life for the last three months…

So have you told them?

I don’t mean in a smarmy look how fabulous I am kind of way.  Just in a matter of fact way.

If it’s internal stakeholders who need to know, a short email should suffice:

I hope you’re pleased with the way the project has gone.  I really enjoyed working on this one, and delivering ‘a, b, c and d’ exactly to the client’s specifications.  They told me that they were impressed with my dedication and commitment to ensuring they received the service they were expecting from our company. Some key points about the project: delivered on time, within budget etc.  I hope you will keep this email on my file for next time a promotion opportunity arises.

If it’s an external stakeholder, a similar email would work, but listing all the final deliverables (with short explanation of what was involved in achieving them) and inviting their feedback on how they think it went.

If you’re feeling un-appreciated, like nobody understands all the work that went in to making the thing happen, chances are, they don’t.  And who’s responsible for helping them understand?

You are.

So the next time you or someone you know says “but they just don’t understand…” stop and ask yourself…

Who is responsible for helping them understand?


* For an excellent explanation of the difference between actively-managed and passively-managed funds (without a sales-pitch), you should read Unshakeable by Tony Robbins (Amazon Associate link).

3 thoughts on “Understanding: Who’s Responsible for it?”

  1. You have a very good point here – the one who delivers the message is the one who has the responsibility of being understood. And what’s more – the recipients of the message might not even see, what would be the benefit of understanding, so it’s very difficult to blame them that they are not trying harder. If I have a message, I would like to put forward, my success rate is only depending on how easily understandable I am able to make the message. If the success rate is not high enough, I might better try another way – and one of the most clever ways would be to rephrase the message using concepts that resonate with the target audience. In the words of Stephen R. Covey (the fifth of his Seven Habits of Highly Successful People): “Seek first to understand, then to be understood”. Or as Kierkegaard has it: “If one is truly to succeed in leading a person to a specific place, one must first and foremost take care to find him where he is and begin there.”
    I once participated in a very simple exercise: Give a group of people a simple riddle.
    Among the people who answer the riddle, choose one who has answered correctly and one who has given a wrong answer or no answer at all – and then you let the one, who was correct, tell the other person what the answer is – until she is convinced that it is true.
    Soon the one who explains will start using tools from her own world of concepts: the mathematician sets up equations, the actor begins to play plays – but only very few will start out from the world of concepts familiar to the one to be convinced. It will become even more interesting if you make two people convince a third – although it may require someone who can part the two “convincers” if they get into a fight, despite the fact that they fully agree – they easily start competing to bring their own way of explanation forward because they think it’s the most understandable.
    Apart from this, there is another aspect to communication, as your message has to go through three phases: your audience has first to hear it, then to understand it, and then to accept it. For some messages, getting it through phase 3 might be even more difficult than phase 2. But again – if you understand where your audience stands, it will not only be simpler to have your message understood – acceptance might also come easier.

    • Thanks Henrik
      I find it is a commonly relied upon excuse – blaming the other party instead of looking at the system, communication, or process that caused the confusion. A business sets up a process that the staff using it don’t really understand, so they can’t actually explain it to the customer. Instead, they shrug their shoulders and say “the customer can’t understand, our business is very complicated”.
      In that case, I think the business needs to be willing to refine and improve its processes – complex processes and systems are far more prone to error and are less efficient…

      What do you think?

  2. For my own part, I always tend to feel unease when I have difficulties explaining something – I do not like the idea of “this is difficult stuff, so it should be difficult to explain and difficult to understand from the explanation”.
    The best communicators are those who are able to take complex stuff and make it easily accessible. True, the listener might not get all the details, but will get sufficient information to get an initial idea of what things are about – and the drive to get more information and understand more. It is worth keeping in mind that – though there might be some showoff effect in delivering a message in a way that only few people understand – the vast majority of people will not become wiser, will only see the communicator as being understandable and will not bother trying to understand the next time.
    There’s a reason that messages, presentations et cetera from people that are able to communicate simplicity are so much more popular than messages from brighter people who are not able to get the message through.
    Therefore, I agree – the business needs to be willing to refine and improve its processes – and refine the way processes are communicated. In the end, the one delivering the message has an interest in it being understood – and as she cannot in a flash change the capability of understanding of the listeners, she must work at refining it to make it understandable.


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