While surfing movie channels, I stumbled upon “The Sting.” Paul Newman and Robert Redford starred in this 1973 film, which won seven Oscars including best picture. Newman’s and Redford’s characters are trying to pull a con on Doyle Lonnegan, a mob boss played by Robert Shaw.
Doyle Lonnegan frequently adds a tag to his sentences: “You follow?” This shows he is arrogant, condescending and rude. You know he is a bad person who deserves what you hope is coming to him. I was particularly struck by this mannerism, because I had been on the receiving end recently myself.
I’m Smart — Not So Sure About You
The case was big and the settlement was complicated. One of the attorneys repeatedly punctuated his statements to his client and to me with “You follow?” He seemed to be saying he suspected we were respectively too dense, or stupid, or something else (heaven knows what) to comprehend.
If you have doubts about whether the message you intend is being understood by the listener, there are more polite ways to handle this.
When you are laying out a complicated topic, you can start with an invitation to interrupt:
- “Stop me if I’m getting any of this wrong.”
- “Stop me if I’m not making sense here.”
Phrases like these assume that any comprehension gaps are the responsibility of the speaker. They represent a 180-degree turn from a question that insults the listener.
Breaking up an explanation allows the listener to digest the message in small bites. As you finish sections of your explanation, pause to invite questions. Questions are good. Questions indicate the message recipient has paid attention. You are more likely to get questions by asking, “What questions do you have?” rather than, “Do you have any questions?” If the listener was intimidated or overwhelmed, that listener might just respond with a head shake. The open-ended “What questions do you have?” indicates you expect questions.
Maybe you are indeed the smartest person in the room. So what? You are communicating because you want your message to be effective. A subtext of derision undermines that. Courtesy is better.
What phrases do you use to encourage your listeners to confirm their receipt and comprehension of your message? Key in your suggestions in the Comments below.