In the beginning of my career in the USA, when I had conversations with clients who had complicated things to say, I was feeling lost.
My English wasn’t as good as it is now, and in general, I don’t understand very complicated things. I like simple and clear ideas.
Sometimes, I would be in meetings where someone would do a presentation and I would not understand a word. I would look around and I would see people take notes, nod, and look smart. I was intimated as I assumed that everyone was tracking with the subject.
But I couldn’t fake it for very long. People paid me to help solve important problems. I had to understand.
One day, in a meeting with one of the heads of a large philanthropic foundation, and a group of experts, I had to admit in front of everyone that I didn’t understand.
At the risk of looking stupid, I stopped the presentation and I said “I am very sorry, this must be because I am missing a few words, and I don’t have the same knowledge as you, but I don’t understand.”
To my surprise, a woman that had been quiet since the beginning of the hour added: “Actually, there are a few things I am struggling to understand too”.
Then, one after the other, all the members of the team said the same: “I don’t understand this either”.
If I had not overcome my fear of looking stupid, what would have happened?
If I hadn’t spoken up and said “I don’t understand”, the group would have carried on. We would have spent the precious time pretending, and my clients would have lost a lot of money.
In the months following that meeting, I ran into similar situations, where I was feeling like an idiot. I wasn’t the only one that didn’t understand. But I was the only one who would say it. Every time, my vulnerability helped other people. I became more and more confident in admitting it in front of others. My fear was always here, but I became more and more courageous.
To this day, the phrase “Please excuse my French, but I don’t understand” is my best wild card to help my conversation partners to communicate more clearly.
At some point, we are all in the position of the idiot. We have a chance to make everyone smarter by being risking to admit how we feel.
Challenge the convention. It’s your responsibility. Few people will do it. If there is something that you don’t understand, say it. So many meetings need you to say it. You will do a huge favor to the group and add a lot of value.
This even true when everyone was raised with the same language. We are somehow speaking a different language anyways. Words hide other words. We assume their meaning.
It’s OK to not understand something. But it’s not OK to not understand something if you’re not telling people that you’re lost.
It is really worth slowing down and asking for clarification.
You might feel like an idiot, but a courageous one.