Show that you understand (don’t just say you do)

How often do you hear someone say “I understand” or “I appreciate that,” but your distinct impression is that the person is merely saying those words without making a concerted effort to understand? Are you ever guilty of this yourself? These phrases and others like them (e.g., “I get it”) are feeble showings of understanding, and they are widespread. Because such phrases are so widespread, showing understanding more convincingly stands as an opportunity for most people, especially for leaders. We argue here that this opportunity is well worth tapping on a regular basis.

The fact that such phrases are used a lot isn’t itself the problem. After all, who can argue with saying “I understand” or “I appreciate” another’s message? No, the problem isn’t frequency of use, but rather how these phrases are typically used. It’s a simple problem, really. In most organizations (and in most homes), people routinely say “I understand” or “I appreciate that” without really showing that they do. This saying without showing is the problem, especially in difficult conversations.

How do you show understanding in a conversation? By summarizing in your own words what you think the other person is saying, asking him or her if you’ve gotten it right, and repeating these two steps until the other person responds affirmatively. Once you’ve received affirmation, then it’s perfectly fine to follow up with “Okay, I understand” or “I appreciate that,” or both phrases together. This practice is particularly important when others have been talking for a while, and especially if they’ve been repeating themselves. While it may seem unnecessary to check your understanding when others have been repeating themselves, this is exactly when checking may be the most helpful. Why? Because repeated statements are often a signal that the other person doesn’t feel heard, or believes you’re missing the point. Paraphrasing back the other’s words and getting his or her affirmation usually ends the repetition because now you’ve shown that you understand, and the other person sees that further repetition isn’t needed.

But rather than showing our understanding in this way, most people only go so far as to say “I understand; I appreciate that” or the like. Maybe you do understand, or maybe you don’t. Perhaps you think you understand but in reality you don’t fully grasp what the other person is trying to say. Or maybe the other person can’t find the right words and could use your help finding them. Being open to these possibilities provides the motivation for checking your understanding.

In our experience leading workshops, coaching, and facilitating groups, the phrases “I understand” and “I appreciate that” often reduce to a throw-away line. People say it out of habit, because it sounds good, or because it’s what you’re supposed to say. Sometimes the phrase even comes across as dismissive or patronizing, especially when it’s repeated over and over (ironically, by repeating this phrase we may unknowingly agitate the person we are talking with, and then view the person as “difficult” because of the very agitation we have caused!). It’s a classic case of unintended impact. We want the other person to feel understood, but our impact is often much the opposite.

So the recommendation is simple: If the conversation is important and your goal is to understand others and have them feel understood, show that you understand first. Don’t just say you do. With tongue in cheek, we’re now wondering if you understand and appreciate what we’re saying here. If you do, there’s no need to show us. Just show each other at work and at home.