“Do You Understand?” vs. “ Am I Making Sense?”

A few months ago I wrote a blog post entitled, “Let Me Know What I Can Do…” vs. “How Can I Help?” covering the (vast!) discrepancy between those two phrases. Today I’m going to tackle the difference between “Do you understand?” and “Am I making sense?”

Here’s what got me thinking about this: I spent this past Tuesday speaking at an event for a worldwide corporation. Their virtual teams face multiple challenges including language barriers, time differences, and understanding each other’s cultural anomalies. During our discussion of how to handle these, I made the point to them—as I will to you, now—that there is a big difference between asking someone “Do you understand?” and “Am I making sense?”

To me, “Do you understand?” – with its accusatory mid-sentence “you”–  is an easy way to make the other person feel upset/angry/ashamed/inferior. From where I sit, its subtext is, “Are you smart enough to follow this or do I need to tell you again in words of one syllable?”

“Am I making sense?” on the other hand—with its lovely mid-sentence “I”—demonstrates your willingness to take the onus for the clarity of the conversation on yourself.  It leaves the other person with a choice. He or she can say, “Yes, indeed,” but there is also room for them to say, “Actually, X doesn’t make sense….May I ask you to explain it again?”

Suffice to say I don’t think worldwide virtual teams are the only ones that struggle with clarity in communication. With this in mind, then, I recommend—should you have a situation where your colleagues appear confounded/confused/bemused by what you are saying, that you ask them, “Am I making sense?”


P.S. For more on managing virtual teams see my post, “Feels Like (Virtual) Team Spirit.”