"Don’t be Immortal"


We have an older family member that, when he is sick, is a horrible patient.  He can collapse on the floor and then, as he is helped back to his feet, repeatedly declare, “I’m fine, don’t worry about me.”  His approach means you can spend a lot of extra time and effort just to properly understand what is really going on with his health.

After a number of hours of this, my wife Doris finally told him, “Don’t be a martyr.  It doesn’t look good on you and it wastes everyone’s time.”

A few days later, a sibling told Doris, “I told him it is just like Doris said, ‘Don’t be immortal.  It doesn’t look good on you and it wastes everyone’s time.'”

When people misunderstand something, many of them will create their own meaning or “hear” it differently than it was said.  While the example above was good for a chuckle, this type of “change” to a message can be a huge obstacle to effective communication.

While in college, I worked one summer at Camp ASCCA, the world’s largest recreation facility for people with disabilities.  At the start of the summer, there was a full week of training and orientation.  Because campers have various disabilities, their respective disabilities can often make their speech difficult to understand.  It was stressed that we should never pretend to understandsomone when we really didn’t.  It could potentially create a serious problem.  Pretending to understand is essentially ignoring what we are being told.  This could result in a number of problems that could range from insulting to dangerous.

I have kept that lesson in mind every time I have trouble understanding someone.  If I don’t understand, I never pretend I do, even if it takes several attempts to understand.

You might here me say, “I’m sorry, I just don’t understand.  Please bear with me and say that again,” or “I appreciate your patience with me, can you repeat that one more time please?”

In some cases, I may even say, “I’m sorry I don’t understand, I’m going to see if someone else can help me.”

Is there a risk of irritating someone by having them repeat something several times?  Sure, but I say there is a greater risk of insulting them if you lie to them, pretending you understood them.  Maybe you get away with it a few times, but sooner or later you’ll get busted.  What good does it do then?


About the Author

Glenn S. Phillips works with leaders who want to leverage technology and understand risks within. An author and blogger, Glenn is often quoted in national media, plays a really ugly tuba (it even has a bullet hole) and is a fan of dark chocolate and great puns.