I Understand Is Miscommunication

In the process of communication, we frequently hear a term that on the surface appears to suggest good communication is in play and is spot on, but in reality, this phrase causes enormous miscommunication on a rather significant level.  That term is “I understand”. Under the surface “I understand” means I believe I understand what you are communicating, but in reality I may not have a clue as to what you are communicating. But because I think I know, I respond to your statement or comment with “I understand”.

If you want to easily take a simple step resulting in a massive improvement in communication, stop using the term “I understand”.  Replace “I understand” with the specific outcome you are looking to achieve, and if time permits, share with the other person or the team why you made a certain statement so as to give your statement context.  This shows up frequently in meetings where a boss makes a request, everybody clearly understood that request, then they break from the meeting and take very different actions like they weren’t even in the same meeting to begin with.  Yet they clearly thought they each understood by responding with “I understand”. The mindset behind communicating “I understand” can give people a false sense of true understanding.

Understand (let me be specific), people frequently use this term because it fits a response based on their interpretation of you and not motivated by a comment you made.  If you ask me to take an action but in my mind, I feel like you are just testing me and you’re just wasting my time because you’re going to do it your way anyway, I might just jump to the point with “I understand” so I can bring this meeting to an end.  If I ask you to follow safety measures to the letter the law, well you know what that is, so you respond with “I understand”. But if I don’t tell you OSHA just levied fines for safety violations, then you don’t understand the magnitude of my request, just the action and the response “I understand” took away all need to explain it.  So, you might get to making the changes in a day or two because that’s what you understand by saying “I understand”.

Take the example where a three person team was receiving substandard word from an outside vendor.  In a meeting the boss demonstrates frustration with the repeat offense and tells his team to make the necessary changes with the vendor.  Both vice presidents heard the stern message loud and clear so each responds with “I understand”. One VP walks out, calls the vendor and terminates their agreement.  Later that day the second VP calls the vendor to re-establish performance expectations, and the vendor shares that the first VP already called and fired them. The “I understand” obviously did not land with even close to the same understanding between the two VP’s.

“I understand” is a generic term that seemingly completes a communication message without communicating at all so if miscommunication keeps mysteriously surfacing, and you are confused as to why people “don’t get it”, stop using the term “I understand”, and stop letting other people use it as well.  “I understand” often has nothing to do with understanding at all, but we hear it because the term fits another purpose all together.