Repeat After Me


callandresponse

Thanks to Tech Field Day, I fly a lot. As Southwest is my airline of choice and I have status, I tend to find myself sitting the slightly more comfortable exit row seating. One of the things that any air passenger sitting in the exit row knows by heart is the exit row briefing. You must listen to the flight attendant brief you on the exit door operation and the evacuation plan. You are also required to answer with a verbal acknowledgment.

I know that verbal acknowledgment is a federal law. I’ve also seen some people blatantly disregard the need to verbal accept responsibility for their seating choice, leading to some hilarious stories. But it also made me think about why making people talk to you is the best way to make them understand what you’re saying

Sotto Voce

Today’s society full of distractions from auto-play videos on Facebook to Pokemon Go parks at midnight is designed to capture the attention span of a human for a few fleeting seconds. Even playing a mini-trailer before a movie trailer is designed to capture someone’s attention for a moment. That’s fine in a world where distraction is assumed and people try to multitask several different streams of information at once.

People are also competing for noise attention as well. Pleasant voices are everywhere trying to sell us things. High volume voices are trying to cut through the din to sell us even more things. People walk around the headphones in most of the day. Those that don’t pollute what’s left with cute videos that sound like they were recorded in an echo chamber.

This has also led to a larger amount of non-verbal behavior being misinterpreted. I’ve experienced this myself on many occasions. People distracted by a song on their phone or thinking about lyrics in their mind may nod or shake their head in rhythm. If you ask them a question just before the “good part” and they don’t hear you clearly, they may appear to agree or disagree even though they don’t know what they just heard.

Even worse is when you ask someone to do something for you and they agree only to turn around and ask, “What was it you wanted again?” or “Sorry, I didn’t catch that.” It’s become acceptable in society to agree to things without understanding their meaning. This leads to breakdowns in communication and pieces of the job left undone because you assume someone was going to do something when they agreed, yet they agreed and then didn’t understand what they were supposed to do.

Fortississimo!

I’ve found that the most effective way to get someone to understand what you’ve told them is to ask you to repeat it back in their own words. It may sound a bit silly to hear what you just told them, but think about the steps that they must go through:

  • They have to stop for moment and think about what you said.
  • They then have to internalize the concepts so they understand them.
  • They then must repeat back to you those concepts in their own phrasing.

Those three steps mean that the ideas behind what you are stating or asking must be considered for a period of time. It means that the ideas will register and be remembered because they were considered when repeating them back to the speaker.

Think about this in a troubleshooting example. A junior admin is supposed to go down the hall and tell you when a link light comes for port 38. If the admin just nods and doesn’t pay attention, ask them to repeat those instructions back. The admin will need to remember that port 38 is the right port and that they need to wait until the link light is on before saying something. It’s only two pieces of information, but it does require thought and timing. By making the admin repeat the instructions, you make sure they have them down right.


Tom’s Take

Think about all the times recently when someone has repeated something back to you. A food order or an amount of money given to you to pay for something. Perhaps it was a long list of items to accomplish for an event or a task. Repetition is important to internalize things. It builds neural pathways that force the information into longer-term memory. That’s why a couple of seconds of repetition are time well invested.

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One thought on “Repeat After Me

  1. It’s called “Mirroring,” and is a well-tested technique to expedite communication understanding. It’s a common method in marriage counseling, for instance, to help prevent rapid emotional escalation for couples in emotional distress (where they often have reached a point where listening is no longer their first reaction).

    You can even be proactive about it by mirroring back to someone something that they said to make sure that ‘you got it right.’ Many people think that this means an implicit agreement, so they don’t want to do it if they don’t (agree), but in reality it helps solidify meaning between two people.

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