Prioritizing Comprehension – Not Just Communication

It’s common to hear that communication is key. And it’s true. Clear, consistent communication is the essential foundation for any successful relationship. I imagine we can think of several instances in our personal and professional lives where communication has either helped or hindered the health of a relationship. Where communication is lacking, frustration will always follow.

All too often I feel we stop short of the most valuable piece of communication – and that’s comprehension. I can shout my lungs out with a message I want you to hear, and even if you do hear it, but do not comprehend it, it has not helped to bring clarity and understanding to our relationship. It’s like reading a paragraph from a book and looking up only to realize you didn’t retain a single word you read. You may as well have not read it at all! That’s the difference between communication and comprehension.

Okay, you say, point taken. I comprehend that comprehension is essential. But we’re at the mercy of other people’s attentiveness and willingness to understand. Communication is bringing a horse to water. And comprehension is when it chooses to drink. However, we can learn to communicate in such a way that we make others “thirst” for what we’re saying and be satisfied with what we’re trying to convey. As a lifelong passionate communicator, here is how I aim to communicate in such a way that prioritizes comprehension.

Know your audience.

How I speak to my children is going to be different than how I speak to a work colleague (most days anyways). I wouldn’t expect my first grader to comprehend a complex chain of instructions given at rapid-fire speed. It would be unfair for me to become upset when he doesn’t do what I’m asking when I didn’t meet him halfway with my communication. My tone, pace, eye contact, word choice, and volume should be tailored to what I believe he will best receive and understand. The same is true of the many, many different audiences we communicate with on a daily basis. There is no one-size-fits-all method of communication. Making it a practice to tailor your message and delivery to your audience will greatly help increase comprehension, and lead to far better outcomes that are well worth the added effort.

Repeat and ask to be repeated.

Repetition is how we learn and it’s a key factor in how we comprehend. During any important conversation, I’m likely to repeat a phrase back to the person prefaced with something like, “Just so I’m clear…” or “I want to be sure I understand…” I gain confidence in my comprehension when I receive affirmation or clarification that what I’ve interpreted from someone’s communication is correct. In the same vein, it’s wise to ask someone to repeat back what you believe you’ve communicated, giving them the opportunity to do the same for you. It doesn’t need to come across like you’re micromanaging the conversation or that you don’t trust them. But especially when you’re discussing a very dynamic or nuanced topic, it’s acknowledging that your own communication may not have been clear and you want to help provide clarity where it may be needed. Consider asking, “Can you tell me what you believe I’m saying so that I’m sure we’re on the same page?”

Ask clarifying questions.

When it comes to important matters that can have negative consequences if communication goes awry, I’d rather answer 100 “dumb” questions than have someone make one dire assumption. On the professional side, don’t be afraid to “circle back” on a conversation point or to “take a step back” and ask a high-level question. These are common phrases people use in meetings and for good reason. They’re looking for ways to professionally and politely ask for clarification. A silent fool is still a fool. Even if you are distracted and need something repeated, ask! It’s a small admission compared to the lack of comprehension that may cause you to make a significant mistake down the road.

Provide examples.

Much like repeating back to someone what you believe they’re trying to communicate, you can also gain clarity through examples. Either provide one of your own to showcase what you believe someone is telling you, or ask for an example to clarify a point that’s a bit fuzzy. Let’s take a personal example. Imagine needing to address a conflict or dissatisfaction with your spouse (maybe some of us don’t need to imagine all that hard). Examples are helpful not only for making your case but by providing crystal-clear comprehension. We’re more likely to remember examples, especially examples of how we can do something well. This gives us a target at which we can aim for future actions. An example may also surprise you, providing clarity in that way. As a professional example, maybe I was envisioning a time-intensive writing project when the client really only needed a simple write-up. “Oh, that’s what you’re looking for?” is far better to say at the beginning of a project than at the end.

Put it in writing.

And finally, whenever and wherever you can, put it in writing. Most of us are visual communicators. Sure, we’ll hear the words, but they resonate a lot deeper when we see them. The act of writing out what it is we’re trying to say or remember is also a powerful comprehension tool. In-person meetings and phone calls are a necessary evil, but I almost always put key discussion points in writing and email them to the group afterward. This gives us all the opportunity to align our comprehension with what we feel was communicated. It also provides a proof point we can refer back to in the future to keep communication on the rails. It’s for this very reason we write out notes for loved ones that we leave on doors or kitchen counters. And it’s why a doctor won’t just verbally prescribe you a treatment plan, he or she will also write it down as a summary you can take home.

The big conclusion is to remain vigilant in how we communicate. Lazy communication is when we spout off words and instructions without caring whether someone has fully comprehended our requests. In this case, I’d say we don’t also get to reserve the right to be upset when someone falls short of our expectations because they didn’t understand what was being asked of them. Rather, put in the work up front to be a clear communicator who aims for comprehension. You’ll save yourself so much time and effort from having to go back and remedy confusion when most of this can be avoided right from the start when full comprehension is achieved.

Do you agree? What’s been your experience with discerning and prioritizing the differences between communication and comprehension? I’d love to discuss how you’ve put this into practice in your own life. Join me in the comments!

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