If you’ve ever had employees who directly report to you, then you’re likely already more than familiar with this frustrating workplace problem.

You give an employee a job assignment; or inform them about an important regulatory change; or delegate a multi-step project requiring a number of days or weeks to complete.

The employee seems to understand what you said; you think they understand what you said, and you’re confident that you’ve explained it clearly and thoroughly. You may have even asked them if they understood (they said or nodded yes), or if they had any questions (they didn’t).

Then what do you discover next, whether it’s a couple of hours, one or two days, or even a week later? You discover that they truly didn’t understand what you said, or might have had a question, but didn’t ask it. And that something has been done incorrectly, incompletely, or both, as a result. Frustrating, and then some.

Now more time has to be taken from other projects, potentially threatening their on-time completion, plus we may have to explain to internal and external customers why there’s a delay. To say nothing about potential overtime, overnight shipping, rework, and other costs.

The opportunities to misunderstand assignments, new regulations, projects, and other important information are as numerous as the workplace conversations about them. In fact, some research says that we may miss up to 75% of what we hear.

Why does this happen? Primarily for 3 reasons, which are very common in most workplaces. 

Reason #1: They truly think they understand, but they don’t.

Reason #2: They truly don’t understand, but don’t want to admit it, fearing their boss will think they’re stupid, or will criticize them. Unfortunately, this gets reinforced in too many workplaces by bosses who do exactly this. 

This is the single biggest reason why employees (and others), say they understand something even when they don’t. And it’s often after their boss has asked them this highly ineffective question: “Do you understand?” 

Reason #3: They truly have a question, but don’t ask it, due to the reasons in #2. It’s simply safer and easier to clam up and say nothing, or perhaps ask someone else what to do.

Fortunately, 3 simple skills are the solution; they’re easy to learn, very effective, and not time-consuming. In fact, they’ll save you time.

Simple Skill #1: Ask them to repeat back the assignment or information.

Asking “Do you understand?” which is most supervisors and managers do, can only be answered with a “yes” or a “no.” This creates an “either or situation,” potentially putting employees on the spot; the safer response is “yes.”

Instead, ask them to repeat back the instructions, assignment, new regulation, procedure, etc., like this:

“I just want to be certain that I’ve explained this clearly. To be sure I did, please repeat the instructions, assignment, new regulation, procedure, etc. back to me.”

Notice that this takes the spotlight and burden off the employee, and puts it on the manager; see the boldface capital letters.

If they don’t repeat it back accurately, respond with something like:
“Not quite; I’ll be glad to say it again so you can repeat it again.”

No criticism or impatience expressed on your part; help them to repeat it back again until they have it right, and then thank and praise them for getting it right: 
“That’s correct, you got it right, thank you!”

Give them a little time to get used to doing this; after a short break-in period, most supervisors, managers, and employees like this because it helps all of them from making, and having to deal with, mistakes.

Simple Skill #2: Make it safe for them to let you know if they don’t understand something. Here’s how to do it:

  • “I want you to know that if you ever don’t understand an assignment or information that I’ve given you, it’s okay to ask me about it.”
  • “I promise I won’t criticize you.”
  • “Instead, I promise I will work hard to be clear so that you understand.”

Simple Skill #3: Ask this open-ended question.

If you think they may have a question-or you want to be sure-ask:
“What questions might you have about this?”

Notice that this can’t be answered with a “yes” or a “no,” which makes it much more likely to elicit a question if they have one.

The true test of these skills as always: isn’t this the way you want your boss to work with you to confirm understanding, avoid errors, and remove fear and uncertainty? 

A true story: a production supervisor in a major northeastern dairy manufacturing plant used these skills with his employees, helping them avoid losing 30,000 gallons of fluid milk at a cost of $3,000.00. A good savings for just seconds of effort.

Your organization can also make it safe for employees to talk, save time by confirming assignments and new information up front, avoid costly errors, and improve internal workflow.

It’s what happens in more productive workplaces. 


 Free people to communicate & do more productive work.

Conversations at Work helps people in organizations have the workplace
conversations they’ve been avoiding—and improve productivity.

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