Trigger Understanding – Not Defensiveness

by Pamela Jett, CSP

The other day I was having a conversation with a good friend who was expressing some relationship frustration.  During our conversation she mentioned that she often felt he was condescending to her just like someone who regularly says “do you understand?” during a conversation.
This got me thinking.  As good communicators, we are taught to check for understanding so that we can ensure that we have been understood in the way we intended.  Unfortunately, if we regularly ask our conversational partners “do you understand?” it can trigger defensiveness or hostility.  When we frequently use that for perception checking we might inadvertently cause others to think we believe they are stupid or somehow just not getting it.  So, what can we use instead to check perceptions?
I would suggest trying more open-ended questions such as:
  • What are your thoughts?
  • How does that impact you?
  • What, if anything, can I clarify?

Obviously, which question to use is highly dependent upon the conversation you are having.  However, if you replace “do you understand?”, which is a closed-ended question, with an open-ended question you not only get better feedback, you are less likely to trigger defensiveness and more likely to have a healthy, happy relationship.

Pamela Jett is a communication skills expert, speaker, and author who believes that “words matter”.  She specializes in teaching professionals what to say and what not say in order to improve relationships.  For other great communication tools visit
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