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A few years ago, when I was a trainee developer at my current company, there were some rare situations when my supervisor would explain something to me about one of my tasks, after which he would ask me if I understood, to which I said yes when I believed I did. Sometimes, it turns out I didn't understand what he explained, so he would ask me why I didn't say so, to which I would reply that I thought I did.

From that point on, in order to prevent that from happening again, after any difficult or long explanations, when he asked me if I understood, I would try to repeat what he explained in my own words and ask him if that's correct, this way we could be sure we're on the same page.

Now I'm working full-time at the company, and sometimes I have to explain some stuff or give advice to the new trainee or some colleagues who came after me. There are situations when we tackle something difficult, so I try and make my explanations as clear as possible. Even then, chances are I might not have explained it the way I wanted it to be understood, because of which there might be misunderstanding, like there used to be with my supervisor.

As such, I was wondering if it's a good idea to ask a colleague to repeat what I just explained in their own words once I'm done explaining to make sure we're on the same page?

What worries me is the fact that they can possibly take it the wrong way, although I think it might depend on culture.

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  • I just noticed there was a close vote as "needs more focus". Can someone tell me which part of it lacked focus? I can't improve my question if I don't know where the problem is... – Clockwork Apr 11 at 11:11
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    You can probably explain well enough to one person, but to a group of people, or if there is a game of telephone, you should assume that some or even most of your meaning will be lost. Classic example is the way "A +/- B" always becomes just "A", even if the +/- is the more valuable part of the information. Hence, document well, and accept that complicated ideas don't get propagated accurately in organizations, due to human group behavior. – Pete W Apr 11 at 20:12
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    I think the approach you and your manager did in the past is the best course of action. Letting someone reprase in his own words should give you the best results, and I don't see why you should not do that. Most of the "getting it the wrong way" stems from telling them what to do. I would try that from a "me" perspective. Instead of "Rephrase what I said, so I can gauge if you got it!", do a "Can you rephrase what I said, just for me to see if I explained it correctly?" – jwsc Apr 12 at 14:17
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I know exactly what your concern is. I have previously worked at a company where people were very sensitive, and one of my managers had to have a talk with me that I needed to be less condescending (a trainee had complained). You are right that it depends on culture.

When asking for a response, I would try to ask, "Can you show me what you have understood so that I can ensure we are on the same page, and there is no confusion?"

You also have to remember that when communicating tone and body language mean more than the words that you say (in fact, in some cases it is even more imperative). It is important that when you ask this as a follow up question, you do so in a friendly and helpful voice to ensure that it is received well, and you have relaxed and positive body language.

Ultimately, you are going to have to feel out the new company's culture and make mistakes along the way. It's just a natural part of the onboarding and learning process.

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Your idea makes sense but you're right in that some people may take it the wrong way.

One way to avoid ruffling feathers is to model the desired behaviour. Whenever someone asks you a question or makes a comment you respond along the lines of

If I understand correctly, the situation is A, our desired outcomes are B and C, but the question is how do we take into account X and Y?

or

Let's run through that again, but I'll explain it and you let me know if I miss anything.

Do this whether in conversations with groups or individuals but use your judgement, doing this with blindingly obvious things will sound condescending. The idea is to show that you yourself are leaving ego out of things and that the main thing is that everyone is clear about what everyone else means.

Getting used to each others' communication styles may take some time and until that happens you'll have to follow up frequently. When miscommunication becomes apparent (and it will), again behave how you expect your trainees and colleagues to: ask questions and then gently explain where and what the miscommunication was. Something like:

Why did we use technique X, here? ... Sorry, I don't think I was very clear last time, <explanation here>.

People will pick up on your tone and attitude and will be less likely to take offence when the roles are reversed, i.e. when you ask them to repeat things in their own words.

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You cannot

That is why new software development methodologies like Agile were created so that you have a shorter cycle of review, instead of waiting after months and finding out everything is wrong.

During the initial meeting, take your employee's word for it, but make every opportunity to let them know that clarification questions are encouraged (and make sure you actually behave accordingly).

If you have experience working with project specifications, misunderstanding will always happen, and it may not be your fault at all (customers are not always right). The solution isn't to make the initial meeting have 100% accuracy, but to ensure that your development cycles are "agile" and do not let mistakes fester into huge problems.

If you want more concrete actions on what to do, look into modern agile development methodologies for ideas.

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If you provide information, and that is part of your job, then you also have a responsibility to follow up a short time later to make sure that things are going well.

When you were in school they didn't teach for X months and then give a single test at the end of the term to see if students understood the material. Instead the students have homework, quizzes, tests, papers, and projects. These are used by the teacher to adjust their topics if students have having difficulties. Early intervention in a topic can ensure basic learning.

You have to do the same. Don't send them on their way and then wait till the end to see how they did. That could mean checking their progress a few minutes, or hours later.

The items you suggest such as having them repeat your statement, or having them ask additional questions, can get instant feed back to check that they have gained some knowledge. In that past that worked for you when you were the junior person. It doesn't work for everybody. Some people have to learn by actually doing. If you only have one method of transferring knowledge, and the people working for you don't process new information that way, mistakes will be made.

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  • It's funny, I understand what you mean about the students having homeworks and several tests, even though I did have teachers who only gave one single final test without anything beforehand. – Clockwork Apr 11 at 12:52
  • As a teacher I agree with looking at this through a teaching lens. There are many means of assessment, too many to list. Immediately have them do a related task. Ask a conceptual question that involves extrapolating. Ask for a given piece of code to be explained in light of the new knowledge. Have them suggest an improvement based on the new knowledge. Etc. The difficulty is that the coworker relationship is quite different... doing these things without lecturing is hard. – Luke Sawczak Apr 12 at 14:41

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