Do I Understand You?
When I was an undergraduate first getting into research, I focused on hiding my lack of knowledge over growing from my confusion. I would often nod along while my supervisor said things I didn’t understand. I would fool myself into thinking that I could figure it out from context. I didn’t, since these were technical matters. I suspect that the mental structure my supervisor had in mind differed greatly from my own.
Insecurity held me back as a scientist. I didn’t want to expose my lack of understanding, and if I did think I understood, I didn’t want to check, because that meant I could have been wrong. I preferred projecting the illusion that I understood, even though in the long run it meant I understood less.
This experience reinforced an important lesson: speaking and writing are easy, but communicating is difficult. It’s one thing to transmit words and ideas, but quite another for the receiver to absorb them and build similar mental structures to your own.
The stakes only increase with the technical details. If I’m reading a piece of fiction or listening to a video, I may only care about getting a general understanding of what they meant. But if I’m discussing a scientific idea with someone else, all of the little details matter, which means we need to build a similar mental structure so we can reason from the same vantage point.
If the stakes in communicating science are so high, how do you ensure you understand what a person is saying? How do you avoid misunderstandings as much as possible?
Here’s the strategy that works for me: Repeat what they said in your own words.
Turn it into a question. Begin by telling the person, “If I understand what you were saying, you think…”, and then reformulate their words into your own. If the person confirms this was their meaning, then that’s great and you can be more confident that you understood the person. If not, the person can say where you diverged from their meaning, and you can adjust.
There are two reasons why this is helpful. First, it gives you a chance to actively check your mental model against theirs. If instead you nodded along and tried to “check” your mental model by reflecting later, you wouldn’t be able to ask the source directly if you got the details right. This is akin to copying notes from a teacher on the board word for word, and then not being able to understand the context and nuance later on when you’re alone. Second, asking questions demonstrates that you aren’t just hearing their words, but the meaning beneath. This gives the other person confidence that you are really listening to them. Recalling the words of the conversation is great, but the point isn’t the words, it’s the meaning they encode. Asking questions to probe the meaning shows you care about more than the words.
Asking questions to clarify does slow down the conversation, but I think it’s a worthwhile tradeoff. The alternative is to hope that both of you are absorbing everything the other says, with exactly the right meaning. From personal experience, this doesn’t happen. At best, there’s a little latent confusion. At worst, it creates misunderstandings between scientists that can take a long time to pin down. Communicating science is particularly challenging because of the attention to detail, but once you’ve invested the time to build the same mental structures, you’re both free to move forward without worrying the other didn’t understand you.
I’ll admit, asking questions feels awkward if you’re used to hiding your ignorance like I was. It felt like I was exposing myself to judgment. However, I stuck with it because I recognized that the only way I could really engage with the work of others was to focus on the meaning of what they said, not the words themselves.
As a writer, I’ll be the first to say that words are important and they matter. But they matter because they are how we convey meaning. It’s meaning that’s the whole point. And in science, the meaning of many concepts contains nuance that you won’t uncover if you decline to ask questions.
In my case, as soon as I’m being honest with myself and admitting that I do want to engage on this topic, I will ask questions. I’ve found it to be a shortcut to getting to the heart of what a scientist is saying.