Ten reasons why we don’t understand stuff

badgerSo I sat there in this meeting about IT and I understood less than 20% of what was discussed.   For the most part, I tried to pick out the words I knew and did my best to make sense of it but towards the end I had to admit, I switched off.   Highly unprofessional and not very productive, but sometimes you just have to put your hands up and say “you’ve got me, I don’t know what you’re talking about”.   Although, of course, I didn’t put my hands up at all.   Most of us soldier on, not having or seeking understanding.   And this happens every day to millions of people in the workplace.

So why do some of us just not get stuff, and why don’t we speak up?   Here are ten reasons why …

1.  Lack of context.   One of the reasons messages fail to hit home in organisations is that they don’t have context.  Messages are too random, with no sense of belonging or association.   I can receive and read a message, but I can only understand it if I can tie it to something I already know … what psychologists call a ‘schema’.

2.  Too many assumptions.   Communications professionals should have a code of conduct and somewhere near the top should be the words ‘assume nothing’.     We cannot assume our audience has read every communication, or turned up to every meeting, or listened to every word, or understood every meaning, or asked every question, or left the room with a warm glow of satisfaction.    People understand when the message is simple, consistent, relevant, contextualised, well-delivered and meaningful.    Most corporate comms messages aren’t.

3.  Too much jargon.   I’m always amazed at how many people in organisations, often at senior level, don’t understand their own jargon.   Test out common acronyms on a sample audience at any one time and I guarantee some will get them wrong.   But it’s like the emperor’s new clothes.   We all think we’re the only ones.

4.  Complexity.    “Confusion now hath made his masterpiece” says Macduff to Macbeth in Shakespeare’s Scottish play.   When it comes to ensuring understanding, the principle of Occam’s Razor should apply – the simplest explanation is usually the right one.  But why oh why do we insist on making everything so complicated!   It’s one of the biggest barriers to understanding in the workplace – too much complexity.   Simple, simple, simple.  It has to be on our code of conduct!

5.  Groupthink.   In recent years, scientists have uncovered some fascinating insights into why we are so inclined to “go along with the crowd”.   This concept of ‘groupthink’ is a dangerous barrier to understanding, because of our reluctance to break from the crowd.  How often have you gone along with a group idea only to find later that none of the group actually wanted to do it.  “I only went along with it because I thought you wanted to do it”.  “Oh, but I thought it was you who wanted it”.   In experiments, where groups of people looking at a problem were influenced by primed ‘actors’ pushing the wrong solution, an astounding number of participants would vote with the wrong answer, even though they knew it to be false.    Neuroscientists have discovered that, when alone, people rely on the frontal, decision-making areas of their brain, but in groups, they use more of the emotional area associated with perception.   Peer pressure can indeed be a dangerous thing.   In practice, many of those people who say they understand, actually don’t.

6.  Myths & Rumours.   I’ve just worked on a project which suffered little from false rumours. Word went round that a new service was expensive and unreliable and this fuelled perception among potential customers.   The original rumour turned out to be way wide of the mark, and it took some heavy comms and engagement to ‘bust the myths’ and get back on track.   But people do base their understanding on what they’ve heard as well as what they’ve experienced – as many brands have found to their cost.   Suddenly, half your audience has got the wrong end of the stick. 

7.  Wrong culture.  Organisational cultures can be silent killers of many things – advancement, creativity, engagement, collaboration, change agility, service ethos etc.   But culture can seriously impact understanding too, not least in the way it hampers openness, conversation and challenge.    Is it OK to ask a ‘stupid’ question in your organisation?  Is it OK to say “I don’t understand”?   Is it career-limiting to say you don’t get it?   Unfortunately, for many, the answer is yes.

8.  No reason why.   Surely one of the biggest reasons people fail to understand is, quite simply, because they can’t be bothered.   And who’s to blame them?   We’ve got enough on our plate without having to learn something new.    So if we want our audience to truly understand something we need to give them a reason why.   Part of that comes in the context described above, but it also has to have a relevance, a hook or a ‘stickiness’ (to paraphrase Chip & Dan Heath’s book Made to Stick).    Not only do we have to get the audience to be able to understand it, we need them to want to understand it too.

9.  Lack of opportunity.    Take the phrase “I didn’t give him money”.   Say it aloud five times, putting an emphasis on a different word each time and you have five different meanings.   It’s hard to get the true meaning of a message first time round, especially when it’s written and not spoken.   So we get round that by asking questions and seeking clarification.   “When you said A, I thought you meant B”.  “No, when I said A I meant C.”   That’s a relief, I was about to go and do D.”   That, again, is human nature, but so often in the workplace we restrict the opportunity for questions and clarification.   And without the opportunity, we risk misunderstanding.

10.  Poor delivery.   At some point, of course, after the planning and the crafting, the message must be delivered.  Somehow.  This is the ‘transaction’ it all comes down to.  So getting the delivery right is key – the right words, in the right way, through the right channel.    The level of understanding will come down to the options you choose, so what’s going to work for your audience?  Will it be speedy email, a face-to-face briefing, a jargon-busting article, an engaging story, a creative visual, inspiring videos, an interactive conference … mime, dance, shadow puppetry (OK, I’m getting silly now, but you get the gist).    The right delivery for the right audience.   Get it right and get it understood.

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