Wednesday, November 6, 2013

It Never Hurts To Ask

From the fall of 2010 to the spring of 2013, I lived in the Rocky Mountain states. I spent one year in Montana, one year in Wyoming, and one year in Colorado. Now, if you’ve ever been out that way, you know two things: 1) it’s absolutely beautiful, and 2) it’s not very densely populated, especially Montana and Wyoming. One thing that this means is that to visit any city other than the one where you live, you have to drive at least an hour, sometimes three or four. I don’t know about you, but I get highway hypnosis pretty bad if I don’t keep my mind occupied while I’m on the road. So, when I would drive anywhere, I liked to call people on the phone.

As you can imagine, though, sparsely populated areas don’t have the best reception. (If you don’t believe me, just watch any wireless provider commercial—the coverage maps are almost non-existent over the Rockies.) This led to some fairly awkward phone conversations.

“Guess what happened? <static static> brother <static static static static static static>.”

“Sorry, you cut out. What’d you say?”

“I said, ‘My roommate’s broth<static static static static static static> pend<static static static static static> yesterday.’”

It would be super awkward for me to ask again. Let’s just smile and nod. “Oh, wow, that’s awesome.”

“What? No it’s not. He almost died. Exploding appendixes are not awesome.”


Have you ever done that before? Have you ever not understood something, but were too afraid to ask, and ended up really confused later on? Or what about this one: your teacher or your boss gives you an assignment, and you don’t quite understand what you’re supposed to, but you figure you can guess close enough. And then it turns out you were completely off-base.

Why do we do this? Why are we so afraid of asking for clarification? I think it’s because we’re embarrassed. We don’t want to look stupid. This is especially true if it seems like everyone else understood the instructions or the statement perfectly. As human beings, we have a natural tendency to compare ourselves to others and derive our sense of self-worth and our life satisfaction from such comparisons. We don’t want to appear incompetent, ESPECIALLY when those around us seem to be hyper-competent, and especially in an area as important to navigating life as communication.

Think about it: there are three things every relationship requires in order to be effective, whether that relationship is friend-friend, parent-child, teacher-student, husband-wife/boyfriend-girlfriend, boss-employee, or any of the myriad other roles we find ourselves in throughout our lives. Those three things are trust, respect, and communication. If we don’t have those, relationships fall apart. Now, trust and respect are the easy parts; once they’re established, they have a momentum that maintains itself, provided no outside action causes them to get derailed. Communication, however, is something that we have to work at every time we do it. And add to that the fact that communication is layered with verbal, semi-verbal (i.e. tone of voice, rate of speech, etc), and non-verbal cues, and it’s obvious that clear communication is not an easy thing.

Yet it’s the ability to communicate complex thoughts and ideas that seems to make humans so human. So, whenever we feel we can’t hold up our end of the bargain on the communication highway, on a subconscious level, we feel like we’re failing not just in our role, but as a human being. That’s why, once they reach a certain age, kids start feeling embarrassed to ask questions in class. It’s why we feel awkward asking people to repeat themselves. It’s why we all know how to nod and smile and fake a laugh when we don’t get the joke.

But what I learned on those long rides trying to talk to my friends through the fuzzy reception and dropped calls is that if you don’t ask, and you just guess, it’s even more embarrassing if you’re wrong. Or, if you’re right about the proper response, but you still don’t know what you were responding to, you missed out on a great opportunity to connect with someone. I decided that I would rather be thought stupid for asking a question than miss out on the clarity and connection that comes from effective communication.

So here are my thoughts for you:
  1. If you couldn’t hear what someone said, ask them to repeat themselves. Do this multiple times if necessary.
  2. If you don’t understand what someone said, ask them to clarify. Do this until it makes sense.
  3. If you think you got it, repeat it back to them and ask them to correct you. Do this until there is nothing to correct.
  4. If you think the person you’re talking to is confused, ask them if there’s anything they want explained again. Do this until they completely get it.
Remember, communication is a two-way highway, and it’s easy to be distracted, or to simply not be able to pick up what someone else put down. Don’t be embarrassed to make sure that you get what you need from the communication. Ask questions, expect answers, and stop caring so much about what people will think if you do. The reality is that it’s a sign of respect to ask for clarification. It means that you value the other person and what they have to say so much that you want to make sure you have it 100% right. It never hurts to ask. 

Jaselyn Taubel
Sales Support, Southwestern Advantage

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