Understanding understanding

How do you know that you’ve been understood?

This question is one I think about a fair bit, and part of what motivated me to write the jamming/honing blog post.

If I’m saying something something really simple and hard to misunderstand, all I basically need to know is that the message was received and the listener isn’t confused. for example “Hey Carla, I left the envelope outside your room.” If Carla says “OK” then I can be pretty sure she’s understood. (Unless of course she misheard me saying something else reasonable.) A slight modification of this would be a situation where the information is straightforward but detailed—and the details matter. In these situations, often the entire message is recited verbatim. A classic example would be when a number is spoken over the phone, and the listener echoes each set of 3-4 digits.

Gauging understanding via re-generating

But when communicating something more complicated or nuanced, it’s usually not enough for the speaker to just get a “K” in response. If I’m trying to convey a model to you, one common way for us to verify that you’ve understood the model is for you to say something that you would be unlikely to be able to say if you hadn’t. This could take the form of explaining the model in a new way: “ahh, so it’s kind of like Xing except you Y instead of Z” or it could involve generating an example of something the model applies to.

I think we do this intuitively. Responding to an explanation with “K” potentially implies a lack of having engaged with the details. More like “You’ve said some things and I’m not arguing with them.”

On the International Space Station, the American astronauts would speak to the Russian cosmonauts in Russian, and the Russians would reply back in English (source). The principle is that it’s much easier to tell if someone has your language confused than it is to tell if you’ve correctly interpreted something in a foreign language.

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A portrait of Malcolm Ocean

I'm Malcolm Ocean.

I'm trying to figure out how humans work so I can help make humanity work. More about me.

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