Listen attentively: listen for the words used by the other person but watch for other clues also. Listen to the tone of voice, watch the body language and posture. People (men especially) do not like to admit that they are wrong or that they don't understand.
If I don't understand something, I may not say it for fear that I will be perceived as incompetent or weak. When you ask me "Do you understand?" and I reply "Yes," I may be doing so even if I don't really understand. How can you pick up on it? Did I sound hesitant when I answered? Does my body language look like that of a confident person? Or did I drop my shoulders and lower my head?
These, and other similar clues, scream that I don't understand, but I am unwilling to admit it. If it is important for you that I understand, then you need to validate that I am saying the truth.
Ask questions. If your client or your listener doesn't understand, you need to ask questions. The questions should help you figure out where there is a gap in understanding so you can close it. Questions that use non-threatening language are more effective.
What is non-threatening language? It is a way of speaking that ensures your listener does not put herself in a defensive position. When someone is defending herself, it inhibits clear communication. How can you make use of such language and questions? If the person has admitted that she does not understand, ask her to be more specific about what she doesn't understand. Better yet, ask what she does understand and fill in the gap.
If you are unconvinced that the person has understood, put the onus on yourself: "Just to make sure I explained myself properly, can you tell me what you understood from our discussion?"
Use metaphors and other images to explain difficult concepts. It is harder to grasp abstract concepts like directories and inodes; it is easier to understand folders and documents. Metaphors, images, and comparisons are good ways to illustrate your words for the other person.
Human beings tend to process information as images not words. The more visual your explanations, the better. If you cannot explain it in a metaphor, use drawings, diagrams, or concrete examples. Compare your reality to the other person's reality if you can. For example, a colleague once told me how she explained to a group of schoolchildren that she was a mediator: "I help you get along if you're fighting in the school yard."
Information is what you say. Communication is what your audience understands. The best IT specialist is not the one who has the most ideas. He or she is not the one that programs the best. The best one is the person that is able to take her knowledge and skills and share them effectively with the people that surround her. By paying attention to these five points, you can dramatically improve the effectiveness of your every day communications.
Laurent Duperval is the president of Duperval Consulting which helps individuals and companies improve people-focused communication processes. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 514-902-0186.