CareersCogent Communicator

Cogent Communicator: How Can You Tell They’re Getting It?

By Susan de la Vergne

A recent piece in The New York Times by oncology nurse Theresa Brown describes the disconnect between patients who are desperate to understand what’s wrong with them and medical professionals incapable of explaining what’s wrong in ways patients get. Patients who don’t understand sometimes panic when they don’t need to. They can misapprehend and maybe distrust or misuse the treatment. They can also fail to understand what effect the illness and treatment will have on their lives.

In her article, Ms. Brown describes a patient, who has a blood clot in her lung, listening to the doctor’s detailed description of her problem the required blood tests to monitor anticoagulant medication and such. After the doctor leaves, the patient turns to the nurse and says, Well, that was clear as mud.

The article calls these lost-in-translation moments, a phenomenon that’s hardly limited to the medical profession. You’ve probably witnessed lost-in-translation moments at your own dinner table recently or in the design review meeting you sat in on last week. Maybe you watched one unfold in the one-on-one you had with your manager this week. Or how about that conversation with that demanding client you just hung up with? Was that a case study in lost-in-translation, or what?

Despite your best efforts to be precise, clear, direct, and unambiguous, lost-in-translation moments are all too common.

Have you ever struggled to explain something technical to people who aren’t? Perhaps they need to understand why a system is down so they’ll be patient with efforts to restore it. Or maybe project stakeholders need to know why a prototype failed in order to agree to postponing the deadline. You know how important it is to be understood, and you’re being as clear, accurate, and thorough as you know how.  But when the meeting ends and you leave the room, they say, Well, that was clear as mud.

Faces Hide Feelings

How do you know someone’s getting it? Looking into the faces of whomever you’re talking to seems like a reasonable idea, but often faces don’t offer much information. Most of us have had a lot of practice at concealing our reactions. If we’re confused, distraught, or even just disinterested, we know how to manufacture an expression that says the opposite at least temporarily or that hovers around neutral.


That’s terrible news for anyone trying to read an audience, even (or maybe especially!) an audience of one. There you are, knocking yourself out trying to explain and illustrate the info you think your audience needs, and all the while they’re nodding and even saying Mm-hmm. Meanwhile, they’re actually thinking, What is he talking about?

Faces may conceal reactions, but you don’t have to settle for that entirely. You can check for engagement by doing something as simple as smiling at your audience. If they smile back, that’s a good sign. It’s not intended to check whether they like you. It’s checking for a natural reaction we humans have powered by mirror neurons in the brain. These neurons enable us indeed encourage us to mirror what we see in others’ faces. It’s why, when a friend saysSome guy rear-ended my new car last night, we don’t break into a bright grin and that says Wow, cool! Instead we wrinkle our forehead and turn down the corners of our mouth. Our facial expression says we’re commiserating. (In fact, the function of mirror neurons tells us something essentially good about our basic nature that at our essence we are compassionate beings.)

So when you’re explaining something to someone, see if their facial expression will mirror yours. Smile at them. They should smile back. If they don’t, they’re probably elsewhere. If you’re saying something serious and their expression is light and airy, they’re not with you then either.

Test for Comprehension: Ask Specific Questions

If you ask your audience a vague question like Is this making sense? or Are you with me? many people will say yes because they don’t want you to know they’re confused. After all, you’re not confused, so if they admit they are, that means they’re not tracking fast enough or they’re not as smart as you are.

It’s worse in small groups. When you ask Is this making sense? some people won’t want to appear to be the only one who’s not getting it. They say nothing, hoping to catch on or catch up as you continue.

Instead, ask a specific question. It’s not a pop quiz but rather a way of helping your audience latch on to a particular point, to explore it further or validate that they’ve got that one and you can move on. Examples of specific questions:

  • The weight of the swing-arm in the prototype turns out to be the problem we’re having here. Have I explained clearly enough why that is so?
  • Do you see why we’re so surprised that, when web traffic exceeds this level, performance suddenly takes a nosedive?
  • Of the six possible error codes we’ve just looked at, which one do you think is the most complicated to resolve?
  • So don’t just ask This makes sense? because you won’t get a useful answer. Sometimes you won’t get an answer at all.

Reading Body Language

Body language is often ambiguous. Sorry, I know that’s not what you wanted to hear, but it’s true. Someone sitting with arms crossed isn’t necessarily irate or defensive. Someone who’s clasping their hands behind their head may just be stretching, not sending you power signals.

While body language isn’t definitive, it can be revealing. We’re a lot more practiced at concealing our facial expressions than we are in suppressing the reactions that spring forth from our bodies. We tense up, look down, waggle our feet spontaneously those gestures can be revealing.

In his article Seven Surprising Truths About Body Language (Forbes, October 25, 2012), public-speaking guru Nick Morgan says that while body language is ambiguous, it usually signals intent, not specific meaning. But, encouragingly, he says we’re actually pretty good at sensing intent from others’ body language, especially people we know, and we’re best at it when we don’t try to think about it too hard.

So if you’re explaining something and the person on the receiving end appears to you to be detached, nervous, or tense just from what you observe about their body language they probably are.

So Then What?

You’ve read the signs, gathered the listener’s intent from his body language, or asked the specific questions, and now you’re sure you’re being misunderstood. What then? You have only two choices: let them stay lost, or backtrack, slow down, and rephrase.

In her assessment of doctors talking over their patients’ heads, Ms. Brown acknowledges it’s hard to tune in and try saying things differently when you have countless pressing tasks to get to.  No doubt you sometimes feel the same way. But the trade-off ignoring the misunderstanding and just blundering on reates a time drain later when you (1) have to explain it again anyway, (2) have to do damage control, or (3) have to intervene to fix mistakes. In the long run, when they aren’t getting it and you don’t see to it that they do, you’re probably only setting yourself up for more work later.

Susan de la Vergne

Susan de la Vergne is a writer and communication instructor who worked in software development and Information Technology leadership for a very long time. Susan is the author of Engineers on Stage: Presentation Skills for Technical Professionals.

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