Understanding – Who’s Job Is It?

At one point while at Microsoft I had an employee who had some interesting notions about communication. He was a smart guy, passionate about his work and the quality thereof, but when it came to getting his ideas across — particularly his opinions — things fell a little short.

I challenged him, to which he responded with words to the effect of “if I know that I’ve stated what I mean clearly then it’s not my fault if someone doesn’t understand me”.


Wrong, wrong, wrong. So wrong.

If you want your message to be understood the responsibility falls squarely on your shoulders and only your shoulders to make it so.

What I’ve realized in subsequent years is that the way I view this is very much in line with stoic philosophy.

What’s in your control?

From a purely pragmatic perspective, the only thing you have control over is what you say and how you say it. You cannot control your audience, and you cannot control how they will understand whatever it is you are saying.

The person who’s communicating something is responsible for how well the other person follows him. – Alan Alda, If I Understood You, Would I Have This Look on My Face?: My Adventures in the Art and Science of Relating and Communicating

If you actively want a particular audience to understand what you have to say, it’s on you to make sure that you choose the appropriate approach for that audience.

The person who’s communicating something is responsible for how well the other person follows him. - Alan AldaI’ll say that again: it’s on you.

Of course there are no guarantees. You have no control over that either. But you can stack the deck in favor of your being understood. You do that by crafting the only thing under your control: what you say and how you say it.

What I often hear in response is hyperbole: “What if the person is stupid?”

If we take it at face value, however, the implication is clear: if you want a stupid person to understand what you have to say then you need to put your message into terms a stupid person can understand.

The alternative is to decide that stupid people aren’t part of  your audience. It’s a valid choice in many situations, but ironically in the workplace it’s rarely an option.

Its up to you — and only you — to make yourself understood. You can call it “their fault” if you like, but that doesn’t change the fact that the only thing you have control over is what you say and how you say it.

A topical item from XKCD

You can’t fix stupid.

The other common response happens after the fact: “I was clear, I know I was. But they didn’t understand, so it’s their fault.”


If your words were misinterpreted then you now have evidence that it your words could be misinterpreted. If your words were misunderstood, then you now have evidence that your words could be misunderstood.

You weren’t as clear and precise as you needed to be for that audience.

It all comes back to you.

I’m not saying you need to go into pedantic detail whenever you say anything to any one. That cure’s often worse than the disease: putting readers to sleep — or worse, boring or insulting them — doesn’t foster understanding.

What I am saying is understand your audience. Write for them. Stack the deck in favor of being understood by communicating in ways that they will be more likely to grasp.

It’s hard to overstate the value of this ability.

It’s also difficult to overstate its difficulty. Making yourself understood is part language skill, part clarity of thought, and part empathy. Fall short on any of those three and you’re fighting an even steeper up hill battle.

Stop writing so you understand you, and write so they understand you.