When Communicating, Check for Understanding

Checking for understanding is by far the most important thing you can do in listening. In fact, without this step you can never be sure that you and the other person actually communicated.

There is a story told about General Alexander Haig, the former commander-in-chief, United States European Command, who spent five years with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). One time at an international party, an Englishman asked him, “General Haig, are you married?”

Haig said, “Yes, I am.”

The Englishman asked, “Do you have any children?”

He answered, “No, I don’t have any children. My wife can’t get pregnant.”

The Englishman said, “Oh I see … your wife is inconceivable.”

A German fellow said, “No, no. You don’t understand. What General Haig meant was his wife is impregnable.”

But a Frenchman said, “No. What General Haig really meant was his wife was unbearable.”

Occasionally paraphrasing in your own words what the other person is saying is a wonderful technique to check for understanding. And whether you understand or misunderstand, both parties win. If you get the person’s message right, the person will feel good about the communication and will affirm it with you. If you get the message wrong, the person will clarify.