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10 Mar 2011

Problems With Asking “Do You Understand?”

This entry is part 1 of 4 in the series Education Bias

Problems With Asking, Long ago I sat in on the reprimand of an employee by a manager. The manager concluded his discussion by asking the employee, “Do you understand what I’m saying?” The employee responded, “Yes.” It suddenly occurred to me how biased we are in thinking that education alone will correct behavior. In other words, we assume that if someone understands our argument and reasons they will adopt our point of view.

In this above situation, there was no follow up by the manager to explore whether the employee agreed with the manager’s alternative action or whether the employee was moved to act accordingly in future situations. Yes, he was aware of the consequences, but we tend to forget that sometimes people are willing to pay those consequences.

I refer to making this false assumption about “Do you understand?” as a cognitive bias; we tend to believe that reasons, logic and rationales are enough to win the day. This bias will tend to make us wrongly believe that we’ve done “our best.”

I also experience this in non-disciplinary situations in which anyone is trying to influence another person. This cognitive bias happens frequently with instructors trying to move participants to take action in such settings as business training. They will ask participants, “Do you understand what I’ve shown (said, did, etc.)?”

Therefore, in summary, I find four basic hurdles, represented by the following questions, that we need to negotiate and verify before we can have significant confidence that we’ve persuaded someone:

  1. Do you hear me?
  2. Do you understand me?
  3. Do you agree with me?
  4. Are you moved to take the recommended action (to act on this idea)?
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2 Responses

  1. Oh yes. Compounded when working in China and some other Asian countries, where ‘yes’ can in fact mean any of the above. With the help of role play we found that the eyes are important: in many Asian cultures it’s impolite to look someone in the eyes; but in a negotiation when agreement is reached it’s often accompanied by eye contact.

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