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Check for Understanding

The focus of this guide has been on the active process of communicating—speaking, writing, delivering, and planning. However, while it is true that communications is an active process, it is also true that much of communications involves the leader's pausing to check for understanding. Leadership communications is a two-way process, and leaders must listen to what their people are saying. It is not enough to deliver the message; it is also important to determine how people are receiving it. Furthermore, communications involves retaining the message, with the implication that something is done with the information received.

Two groups that have had some success in demonstrating how leaders can be more attentive are the military and the medical community. The U.S. Army has a tradition of the brief-back, asking a subordinate to put in his or her own words what the commander has just said. This is a simple method that has enormous implications. Asking the soldier to put the orders into his or her own words accomplishes two things: One, it confirms the soldier's understanding of the original order, and two, it affirms what the soldier will do as a result of the order, specifically how he or she will execute the order. The brief-back can work in situations large and small. For example, a master sergeant who is responsible for maintenance on an Apache helicopter can give the orders of the day regarding what the crew is to do in the way of maintaining and repairing the chopper. To ensure that everyone understands, the master sergeant may ask one or two of the crew members to repeat what was said. Likewise, during a live-fire training exercise, a junior officer may be asked by the colonel to interpret the orders and say what the platoon will do. In both instances, the communications are critical; mistakes in helicopter maintenance or a live-fire exercise can be fatal. Both situations require absolute clarity, and it is up to the leaders, those giving the orders, to ensure that everyone understands her or his role.

Physicians, likewise, check their patient's understanding when they do a patient history or begin a diagnosis. They ask questions of the patient to make certain they understand what the patient is experiencing, e.g., pain when, where, and for how long? Likewise, after they have made a diagnosis and prescribed either a therapy or a pharmaceutical or both, doctors explain the implications and lay out the course of action. Once upon a time doctors skimped on the explanation of the therapy because their options may have been limited and the nurse would always fill in the details. Today many physicians adopt a consultative approach, not only involving the patient in the decision making about available therapies, but also answering the patient's questions. They also ensure that they or their nurses can follow up on the details when questions arise.

Both of these situations are classic examples of checking for understanding. Leaders need to adopt similar approaches. Here are some suggestions.


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