You’re sitting in a meeting, and a colleague makes a long comment about a future plan. It starts off sensible enough, but after a moment or two he’s started going off on a tangent–or so it seems to you, anyway. You look around the table. Your other coworkers are still nodding sagely. Now the speaker is throwing out numbers and acronyms and terminology, most of which is soaring clear over your head. Are you just under-caffeinated? Did you miss something? Or is your coworker just speaking corporate gibberish to sound smart?
Here’s how to answer some of those questions and steer the conversation back to a place that’s intelligible to everyone.
Is It Just You?
Often, your initial reaction in situations like these is to assume that it’s all your fault that you don’t understand: “Surely I missed something, right?” After all, nobody else said anything, or butted in to ask for clarification. So when you find yourself suddenly baffled by the conversation going on around you, pause for a second and ask yourself two questions:
1. “Was I just not paying attention?” There are times when I go into a meeting a little tired. I’m just not ready to follow what’s going on around me–but I don’t usually realize that until I’m already in the thick of the conversation, only to realize that I’m hearing the words without fully comprehending them. And in that case, I’m going to have to find some way to catch up on what was just said.
2. “Was this above my pay-grade?” Sometimes, you’re just in the wrong place. Perhaps the comments you’re hearing simply require more technical expertise than you have. Or maybe the speaker is switching gears to communicate primarily with the people in the room who share a certain-level knowledge that others don’t. If that’s the case, try not to succumb to imposter syndrome; you shouldn’t expect to fully understand what’s being said, and in all likelihood you won’t be held accountable for it if you don’t. Just take it as an example of the sorts of things you still need to learn–and maybe jot down a few notes on things you can look up or ask your boss about later.
The First Rule Of Communicating
However, the answers to those two questions should generally be “no.” If you’re consistently having trouble paying attention at work, you probably need more sleep. And you shouldn’t have to attend that many meetings where the information being presented is just not relevant to you.
So most of the time you should be able to grasp whatever’s being said. And if you don’t, it’s the speaker’s fault, not yours.
The first rule of speaking–no matter how informal or off-the-cuff the occasion–is to make yourself understood. A lot of the time, corporate jargon and borderline-meaningless buzzwords pour into our speech when we’re feeling anxious or under pressure to seem smart. So whenever you’re feeling confused by where the conversation is headed, remind yourself of that basic principle. It’s sometimes all it takes to speak up and ask for clarification. There’s a pretty good chance that if you didn’t get it, then other people didn’t get it, either.
This might sound obvious, but the likelihood that nobody wants to admit when they didn’t grasp something is probably higher than you’d hope. In fact, that’s often the source of the sage nods around the room. Fortunately, there are ways (other than, “Wait, what are you talking about?“) for asking for clarification without coming across like a space cadet. Here are a few options:
- Keep it straightforward: Ask someone to walk you through their argument again to help you understand it.
- Try to summarize as much as you managed to glean from their remarks to give them a starting point.
- Ask for the definition of specific words or phrases you don’t understand.
Finally, if you find somebody asking you for clarification about something you’ve just said, use that as a chance to understand your own thinking better. Helping someone else grasp whatever it is you’re thinking about is actually hard work. You have to wrap your head around what they know already. Then you have to find a way to transmit your knowledge by bridging to the concepts they already get.
So be patient and empathetic–and you’ll find it usually pays off. When you take the time to clarify your thoughts for someone who’s having trouble following along, you’ll improve your own grasp of the topic at the same time.