$10K Phrases: “Help Me Understand”

One of my favorite $10,000 phrases is “help me understand.” In this post, I describe why this phrase produces powerful leadership conversations, when to use it, and how to incorporate it into your day-to-day communication.

Crystal clarity

Why say “help me understand”

This phrase has three important purposes:

  1. Improve clarity. If you’re confused about what someone said or did—or the rationale behind it—you may be tempted to stay silent (to avoid conflict, convey strength, etc.) or challenge them (to prove they’re wrong, display your smarts, etc.). The problem with silence is that it doesn’t relieve your confusion. The problem with challenge is that it’s premature: how can you challenge something you don’t understand? A third alternative is to seek clarification. This is precisely the point of saying “help me understand.”
  2. Convey positive intent. “Help me understand” focuses on you and what you want to learn. This conveys to the other person that you care about them and want to put yourself in their shoes. The word “help” positions the other person as powerful and resourceful, rather than confusing. Notice how different this is from saying “What you said doesn’t make sense to me” (which is critique loosely disguised as curiosity) or “Why do you think that?” (which can appear like an accusation unless it’s delivered in the gentlest of tones). Whereas these phrases are likely to evoke defensiveness, “help me understand” supports other’s assessment of you as someone who is caring and respectful.
  3. Save your lips. Many people bite their lips when they hear something they don’t like or understand. They do this to avoid saying something they would later regret. Although this can work in the short run, over time it damages lips. The phrase “Help me understand” carries no such risk.

When to say “help me understand”

  1. When you are confused about what someone said or did. You want to better understand the facts.
  2. When you are confused about why they said or did it, what it means to them, or what implications it has. Your target is not facts but what these facts mean to the other person. This helps you size up the situation and understand what makes that person tick. The result: smarter choices about how to respond.
  3. When your first instinct is to criticize someone’s ideas, actions, or motives. In this situation, saying “help me understand” protects you from sticking your foot in your mouth and/or throwing a dart into the other person’s side.
  4. When you realize it’s time to improve a relationship that is pivotal to your success or happiness. This phrase is one of the best ways to begin the process of mending a broken relationship. (For more on this topic, check out my Fast Company article here).
  5. When you want to cultivate the quality of curiosity. Here the goal isn’t a specific outcome but a better developed person: you. The point of saying “help me understand” is to integrate curiosity into your MO. Some people think that saying “help me understand” requires curiosity. Perhaps. But I suggest that every time you say this phrase with sincerity, you become a more curious person. Curiosity is not just a cause. It is also an effect.

How to say “help me understand”

One of the beauties of this phrase is its simplicity. It has three words and five syllables. Nothing ambiguous. Nothing threatening.

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You can say it as a statement: “Please help me understand the thinking behind your decision.”

Or a question” “Could you help me understand what happened right before the conference started?”

The hard part isn’t saying this phrase. It’s remembering to say it. (The opportunities are endless—if you’re paying attention). And practicing it deliberately both on the job and on a conversational “practice field.” If you want to get better, use this phrase at every meeting, on the phone, in your emails, at the family dinner table, and when hanging out with friends. The more you practice it, the more embedded it will become in your way of being. For more on how to deliberately practice like high performers, check out Daniel Coyle’s The Talent Code, Geoff Colvin’s Talent is Overrated, or this book by yours truly.

Please use the space below to share your comments

  • How does it feel when people say “help me understand to you?”
  • In what situations do you find yourself saying this phrase
  • Are there any variations of this phrase that you’ve found to be equally effective?

Or ask a question. I promise to respond within 24 hours—if not sooner.