Two Questions A Leader Should Never Ask

By Cathy G. Mobley

Two questions which make me cringe when I hear them being asked are “does that make sense?” and “do you understand?”  While the intention of the person asking is likely to ensure what they said was clearly understood, the problem is that these questions won’t necessarily achieve the desired result and might actually provide the speaker with a sense of false understanding.  What surprises me is the frequency with which these questions are being asked and their mindless overuse.  As brown became the new black, is “does this make sense?” becoming the new “um”?

Approximately nine times out of ten, when asked, especially by someone more senior, “does that make sense?” “do you understand?”, the answer is “yes” because the respondent doesn’t want to admit they don’t understand, and is fearful the other person will think they are ignorant.  Instead of acknowledging a lack of understanding, the respondent would rather find someone to whom they wouldn’t be embarrassed to admit this to, and ask that person for help.  What drives this fear in us?  It’s amazing the confident image lots of business people project, when on the inside they’re worried others might discover their not smart enough, good enough, worthy enough, you name it.  The interesting fact is we’re all fearful and plagued by a lack of something and will we go to great lengths to protect ourselves.

With this knowledge, I often recommend to leaders that they ask open-ended questions to check someone’s understanding, i.e. “What are your reactions/thoughts to this?”  This allows the speaker to get a sense of how their message was received and, in fact, even understood.  For situations where a leader is giving a task to someone to complete and the leader wants to make sure the person knows how to do the task, a good way to test for understanding is to take ownership for the communication by saying “To make sure I was clear, it would be helpful for you to recap what I’m asking to be done.  This way I can clarify upfront and save you time with any miscommunication.”  Typically when an assigned task is completed incorrectly, the leader will blame the person.  What’s critical for leaders to understand is their responsibility in making sure what they said was clearly understood.  Leaders know in their minds what they’re looking for and feel they’re being perfectly clear in articulating their message, however that’s not always the case.

I would like to believe that we could all acknowledge when we aren’t clear or have questions, and yet, time after time I see and hear examples of where our fears hold us back from speaking up.  So while we do need to ask if people understand, I’d like to propose we eliminate from our conversations “does that make sense?” and “do you understand?”  Instead, try out some questions that can’t be answered with an automatic “yes”; this will let you know if the respondent is truly clear on what your communicating. 

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