Have you ever taken an action – either immediately or at some later time – based on what you heard someone say only to find out after you acted (or spoke) that you did not accurately understand their statement or request?
So far, everyone I have asked this question in a face-to-face conversation answers pretty much the same way. In effect, they all say: “Yes, of course I have.” And, the truth is, so have I.
As the Irish playwright, George Bernard Shaw, said:
“The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.”
The illusion that you accurately understand another person’s intended message based solely on your interpretation of his words, tone and body language is a trap that can hinder your desire to become a truly remarkable communicator. You certainly have an interpretation of what he intended to say, and you never really know if you understand correctly until you confirm it with him. Confirming mutual understanding is the feedback loop often missing in situations that lead to misunderstanding and frustration.
When you develop the ability to check your own understanding of the messages you interpret from what another person says by consciously inserting a feedback loop, you improve the odds of effectively communicating with her. Well phrased confirmation questions can help you do this gracefully and with ease to improve the odds that you get positive replies rather than snarky comebacks.
Here are five ways you can phrase a confirmation question:
- “Let me say back to you what I think you just said, so that I can be sure I understood you correctly…”
- “Please correct me if I am wrong. I understood you to say ________. Is that correct?”
- “If I hear you correctly, you are saying _____________. Is that right?”
- “I hear you saying ____________. Is that right?”
- “It sounds to me like you feel/think ____________. Did I understand you correctly?”
If you look closely at each question, you will see a common thought: if a miscommunication happened, it’s my problem and not the other person’s.
You can probably find other ways to express the same idea, and I encourage you to do so. You do not want to say the same thing over and over again in the same conversation to the point that you sound like an inauthentic automaton.
This list is a good place to start your own list of confirmation questions. I suggest that you think of others to add to your communication toolkit so that you can have many of them to pull on when you find yourself in the middle of a high-stakes conversation.
If you have other ways of confirming that you understood correctly, please add them in the comments section below.