When you have explained something a number of times to the same person or group of people, it is really easy to allow your frustration with the communication process to build. It's a small step from frustration to anger, and another small step from anger to an escalating conflict.
A failure to understand generally indicates only a few possible scenarios:
- I haven't explained it properly or in a way that makes sense to them.
- I haven't yet explained it enough times (most people need to hear new concepts something like 5-7 times to grasp and remember them)
- They don't have the capability to understand the concept
- They simply don't care to understand or remember.
Let's consider each of these possibilities.
In the case where I haven't yet explained it properly, the fault lies entirely with me. So, I have no reason to get angry with the other person.
If the concept is new or complicated, having to explain it several times is normal. Why should I get angry when it takes several explanations for it to make sense to them?
When people don't have the capability to understand a concept for some reason, I am asking them to do something beyond their skill or maturity level. Again, the fault lies with me and my expectations and not with them. And, again, I have no reason to get angry with them.
If the other person simply does not care to understand or remember, I have to evaluate the relative importance of the task/concept compared to the value of the relationship. If the balance tilts towards preserving the relationship, I have to place the task or concept as a secondary priority. If the balance tilts towards the task or concept, then I have to find a way to get the task done with or without the other person. In either case, I have to ask myself if getting angry will accomplish the desired results.
As a parent, I get the frequent opportunity to “practice what I preach” with regard to this conflict resolution tip. In working with my children (now 14 and 16), I often experience situations where we are discussing the same problem, issue, or overlooked task for the third, fourth, or fifth time.
Now that we are firmly into summer vacation season and my kids are home all day, I get these opportunities pretty regularly. I have to keep reminding myself that getting angry because they do not understand will probably not help the situation.
In the vast majority of situations, I find that the real cause for the problem lies within me. I have not yet explained it properly. I have not yet explained it enough times for it to “sink in.” Or my expectation of their comprehension is beyond where they are at the time.
Seldom do I experience situations where people simply do not want to understand. Even in those rare situations where I have experienced a total lack of concern, I often find that there is something I can do to make the issue important for the other person. In these cases, I find myself back at scenario number one: I haven't yet explained it in a way that makes sense to them.
As you work with people on your team or in your family, remember not to get angry because they don't understand.
Photo by Zen Sutherland.