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Feb 25, 2019

Faking understanding

I wish people would stop pleasing each other by pretending they understood something they really did not. After all, the party fooled now will get mad later, when it becomes apparent you did not understand. I wish people would stop being embarrassed at not understanding something. After all, it is your failure to explain rather than my stupidity that lead to misunderstanding.

Before I go too far on the self-righteous tirade, I do it, too. The temptation to oversell my own understanding of complex issues is sometimes just too strong. You look more competent when you get ideas quickly. You feel dumb where everyone in the rooms seems to understand what is going on, and you still trying to make some sense of it. So, half-understanding is presented as understanding; we nod knowingly, while the key ideas are still pretty fuzzy. It is also hard to tell your counterpart – dude, you are not making any sense, and I have no idea what you are talking about. There are many ways to say it politely, but the essence of the message stays the same. It is a hard one to give OR receive.

Understanding is even more difficult, when the truth cannot be told out loud, and one has to get by with hints. I tend to just say it while hoping people will forgive the directness for the sake of clarity. That kind of hope often goes unfulfilled. And certain things have to be communicated, but simply cannot be said.

Understanding is not a binary thing, where you either do or do not understand a message. While there is a feeling – yes, I go this – it does not really establish whether a person has understood or not. That feeling, like all feelings, can be easily manipulated. Time pressures, social norms, and psychological predisposition all can conspire to make understanding more difficult. The very nature of social interaction, its lubricant – mutual affirmation – sometimes gets in a way of actually understanding the complex issues at hand.

This is as much a note to self as it is a call for action. Let’s stop pretending we understand, let’s use the Navy’s “Repeat to Confirm” rule. I have not served there, but was told in the Navy, one has to repeat an order after hearing it, to make sure it is understood. In everyday situations, people use a milder form: “Here is what I hear you are saying.”

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