Checking for Understanding – Making Shared Meaning

Checking for Understanding – Making Shared Meaning

Creating consistent success requires entire departments and buildings and grade levels to work as a team – which requires exceptional coordination and two way communication.  Like a good athletic team, we want to maximize our impact by coordinating our efforts. Here are some lessons learned about how we can do better at getting everyone pulling together in common cause.

Good two-way communication requires at least four steps.

1. Communicate Clearly – Use Instructional Memos and Leadership Openings

  • Start with “why”
    Explain why this matters

  • Be clear
    Clarify the 2-3 things you want people to know/do?

  • Make it simple
    Explain clearly what needs to be done (Can I do this?)

  • Say it in several different ways
    If this is a change in past practice … it takes four times before we hear the new message

  • Compare and Contrast
    To teach new concepts, explain what we are NOT doing and what we ARE doing instead.

  • Anticipate Problems
    Identify the most likely confusions, complaints, and questions; answer those in advance

  • Seek out Fresh Eyes
    Ask six people (literally) to read the memo for clarity before sending.

2. Clarification – Ask … What did you hear me say?

  • Process Time

    Always provide process time; time to read; time to think.  Provide cues for what you want them to look for.  “As you read … listen for … look for … write down …”

  • Ask Clarification Questions:

    After providing time to read a handout or hear a presentation … ask clarification questions.  Think carefully, in advance, about what you most want them to know … and structure process questions accordingly.  “What are the three most important reasons you heard for moving forward?”  “What am I asking you to do, and why is it important?”

  • Cautions

    Avoid asking, “What questions do you have?”  That goes far beyond checking for clarification.  And avoid “open mike” questions.  That gives too much power to the most vocal nay-sayers.

  • Silence

    does NOT indicate understanding. When there is silence, invite participants to ‘turn and talk.’  Ask someone to paraphrase what they heard.  Or simply ask, what needs to be clarified?

  • Take Notes:

    Write down the questions and provide written answers.  It communicates: I heard you, What you had to say was important to me.

3.  AgreementAsk … What do you think about what you heard?

  • Agreement is different than clarity

    Clarity simply ensures that the information was heard correctly.  To check for agreement, we can ask:

    • What do you think about what you heard?
    • What does this mean to you?
    • How do you interpret what you heard?
  • Asking for agreement is harder than asking for clarity

    It is more personal.  Ask in ways that lower anxiety.  The lower the trust in the group the more anonymity is needed.   Use 3×5 cards.  Ask table groups to record ideas on poster paper.

  • Use Protocols

    Use protocols like, Wows and Wonders.  Bring rough drafts and ask table groups to mark them up: underline things you like; put question marks next to the ones you aren’t sure about; line out areas that you disagree with.

  • Let the Group do the Work

    Ask individuals to use sticky dots (or clickers or their phones) to give feedback.  Is it one or two, or a dozen, who have concerns?

  • Act on What You Heard

    Keep track of what you heard.  Respond to the themes you heard. Mark up the drafts show signs of visible progress.  Let people know their input was heard and mattered.

4. Commitment – Ask … On a scale of 1 (lo) to 4 (hi) where are you and why?

  • Gains come as we get closer to 100% commitment

    This question is best asked after we have achieved clarity and the proposal has been revised in response to questions/suggestions.

  • Write it down

    Ask participants to mark their commitment (on a scale of 1 to 4) and tell what they need to move to the next level of commitment.  This identifies the points of resistance or fear, and allows us to address those concerns.

  • Ask 1:1

    You can also ask this question one on one.  Face to face conversations also allow for an exchange of ideas on what would help move confidence/commitment from lower levels to higher levels.

  • Other ways to ask

    This question could be also be phrased as:

    • How confident are you that you can implement this change with fidelity?
    • Do you feel that you have the skills / understanding to implement this well?
    • Do you feel that you have the authority / support / permission to implement this well?

Ask for Feedback! 

Each of these steps is about getting feedback.  Feedback is the breakfast of champions.  Only by asking will we hear what we need to hear.  Only by finding the gaps and the barriers will we be able to get better.  


  • Judy Olson Ness is the author of the four numbered questions listed above.
  • Bob Biehl says that the five biggest failures to communicate occur when we fail to explain;
    • what is expected,
    • why it is important,
    • what success looks like,
    • where you go to get help, and
    • the authority / permission to act.
  • Influencer: The New Science of Leading Change says all major change hinges on two questions:
    • Does it matter? [the WILL]
    • Can I do it?  [the SKILL]
  • The “Nominal Group Process” explains why anonymous responses are most important in a low trust environment.
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Larry Nyland – Leadership Coach and Consultant.
Seattle Schools superintendent 2014-2018

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