in Career Development, Communication, Leading the Self

In Praise of Comprehension and Meaning

We live in an “instant” world. People want to do everything instantly, including understanding, comprehension and making sense of something.

I remember having attended a strategy meeting where head of the department (call him boss) was explaining a new strategy that none of us had heard about before. He completed explaining and requested the audience to ask questions if any. One of the fellow team members instantly uttered, “This sounds interesting!”.

Boss gently smiled and cautioned, “When you say it sounds interesting, I am assuming that you have complete understanding of what I just said.” Further discussion revealed that the team member did not actually grasp the concept in its totality. She just uttered something because she had to, not because she really meant it.

How many times do we end up doing this? Saying something when we don’t really mean it. Our quest to sound intelligent and respond instantaneously forces us to sacrifice meaning. Wanting to be perceived as ‘smart’ takes precedence over wanting to be ‘relevant’. This becomes even more crucial when we work in a knowledge world where comprehension, contextual clarity and ability to communicate are central to our success as individuals and teams. I have seen many projects that failed, people who were put off, customers who were unhappy just because someone on the team didn’t care to understand things completely.

It is important to realize that understanding and comprehension of our work is at the core of our success as professionals. In fact, the more time we spend in fully understanding our approaches, the lesser time it takes in executing it.

One of my significant lessons in communication is: when communicating, you should not only strive to understand the logical and informational aspects of what is being said, but also emotional content behind them. How something is said, what words are used and what tone – these reveal the emotional background to some extent.

Comprehension is important. Understanding nuances of your work, its implications and clarity on overall context is as crucial in knowledge world as understanding others on the team. Style can enhance the presentation, but without substance, style itself cannot make you a better communicator.

  1. There are many ways to look at understanding and comprehension: Understanding why customers buy our products or comprehending why they are ready to pay the price [what’s the value];understanding what is being said, but comprehending what remains unsaid; understanding that when the sun shines, do dry the hay, but comprehending the beauty of fire-flies in a dark no-moon night.
    Understanding why Australia was #1 cricket team under Steve Waugh by comprehending “you just dropped the World Cup” sense of confidence that permeates in the whole team.

    • You point to levels of comprehension. Some people comprehend things at a meta level while others need a deep dive to comprehend. My point is simpler: ability to understand something fully, remaining curious, being pro-active in communicating, sharing the understanding is critical part of team structures in a knowledge world. I think the level at which someone understands the work has a direct net impact on the quality of service and outcomes.

  2. Building shared understanding is a two-way street. The senders and receivers both have to work at it. We have to recognize that just because we’re talking and writing all of the time doesn’t mean we’re getting below the surface to understand the full meaning. It helps to slow down–which is hard to do in our instant world, as you pointed out. This is an important topic. Thanks for writing about it!

    • Liz, Thanks for the comment. I agree that comprehension is a two way street. Slowing down is so important to be “with” the topic that needs understanding. We constantly do “more with less” rather than doing “more on less”. More focus on less number of priorities can certainly help gain deeper understanding and look at problems/issues from a systemic perspective.

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