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How to be sure someone understands you

How do you know if someone understands you or not?

The other day I was speaking with a potential client and they confessed, “I always worry that other people won’t understand me.”

We had been speaking for about 10 minutes already. Our conversation, while not flawless, was flowing smoothly and she was able to tell me about her work and current challenges.

So I asked her, “Do you believe that I understand you?”

Even then, she hesitated.

Communication is a tricky thing. I’ve written before about how we can often feel we are being perfectly clear even when the other person is confused.

Now, we look at the opposite. How do you know you are being understood when you are afraid you are not being clear?

First, it’s worth mentioning…some people are simply bad listeners. You will find people everywhere there are people that don’t really have an interest in listening. This happens for a variety of reasons. They may not have the time, they may believe what they have to say is more important, or they simply don’t want to put in the effort. 

I’m not saying this to suggest these people are not nice. I just want to make it clear that communication goes both ways and sometimes – oftentimes – you will speak with someone who is not listening well. It’s not your fault or your responsibility to “fix” it. It’s just life. 

Now, here are a few ways you can tell someone is listening. These are also ways you can show others that you are listening when they speak.

Photo by JESHOOTS.COM on Unsplash

They give visual/verbal feedback

If someone is nodding their head as you speak, you can bet they are at least making an effort to listen to you. 

Sounds of agreement or curiosity such as “MmHm” or “ok” are also a good sign. If the setting is right, you may hear the listener use verbal cues such as, “tell me more” or “that’s great.”

Noticing tone is important here as well. If the listener sounds rushed, they may just be waiting for you to finish speaking so they can say what they want to say. 

If you’re on video calls, it’s helpful to give some visual feedback to your audience if you are the listener. If the camera is off, giving some verbal feedback when there is a pause is incredibly helpful. 

They have a relevant response

It can become pretty clear when someone responds to you if they can understand you well or not. 

Good listeners respond to what you say. They ask questions if they are not clear on something. They engage in a two-way conversation. 

When my client expressed her doubt that people could understand her, my question in response was, “Do you think that I understand you?” This was meant to show that I heard her concerns and wanted to calm her doubts. 

If you are not sure if someone understands you clearly, pay attention to their responses. If you are still not sure, don’t be afraid to ask questions such as “am I being clear?” or “does that make sense?”

They don’t respond immediately

If someone starts speaking as soon as you finish, or even before you finish speaking, they probably didn’t really listen to what you said. More likely, they were waiting for their first chance to say what they wanted to, regardless of what you had said.

Surprisingly, it’s when someone is patient and does not start speaking immediately that you can feel more confident that they are listening.

A good listener takes a moment to consider what you said and process the information before responding. Your responsibility is to give them the time and space to do that. 

When you are the listener, don’t be afraid to leave a moment of silence after someone finishes speaking. This will give you the chance to collect your thoughts and show the speaker that you are listening with care. 

They give you their attention

I remember clearly a particular moment in which a leader earned my respect. He was the coordinator of a program I was participating in and I saw him working on his laptop on a bench outside of a workshop I had just finished taking. I sat down and said “Hi, Michael, how are you?” 

He immediately closed his laptop, straightened up and looked at me in the eyes before responding. 

He made it clear that he was listening and that his attention was focused on what I had to say. 

It was a striking difference from many of the conversations we have in this era of screens, notifications and work pressure. 

When someone is focused on you entirely, clearly giving you their attention, they are listening and, hopefully, understanding you. The person who does this will likely also display all the behaviors we mentioned above. 

You can be sure they are making the effort, and will ask you questions if something is not clear. 

On video calls, this is the person who remembers to look into the camera when they are speaking and is conscious of possible delays and tech issues. 

If you aren’t sure you are being understood

This list isn’t the only way to know if someone understands you. People respond and communicate in different ways. Noticing these behaviors will give you a good idea. 

If you’re still not sure….ask! 

A simple question such as “am I being clear?” or “do you have any questions” can make a huge difference in a conversation. It’s always better to ask than continue living with doubt. 

One more invitation. Consider how you can show others that you understand them. Think about these behaviors and remember to give visual feedback and attention to others. Be a good listener and others will make the same effort for you.

I promise that they will appreciate it.