The Master Communicator Blog

Use this power phrase to unlock understanding

A three-word phrase can carry immense power when you’re seeking clarification, empathizing with someone's perspective, or attempting to reach a compromise. Here’s how and when to use “help me understand.”
March 25, 2024

The right words carefully chosen and said at the right time can make a world of difference when you want to make meaningful connections. Certain phrases have immense power to influence others, diffuse tension, and open lines of honest communication. One of these is “Help me understand.” Used strategically, it can engender empathy, bridge knowledge gaps, and build trust.

Early in my career at Avon, the global beauty products giant, I took a field sales management job as a complement to the work I had done there in public relations. Pat, my boss and regional director, was an affable Midwesterner with a terse way of communicating. When my sales numbers were on target or above, he would say “Keep it up.” But when my results were subpar, he would say, “Help me understand.” I can still hear him say it in a soft calm manner after summoning me to a closed-door meeting which I feared yet often left me feeling surprisingly optimistic that I could do better.

Instead of berating me, Pat spoke with sincere interest in my perspective and listened to my insights. He would offer constructive suggestions and make me a participant in solving the problem. Over the years, that phrase has been a standard in my vocabulary of positive communication and has taken on greater value in my work as a public speaking coach.

Power phrases in the ready can save you lots of brain processing energy when you’re under pressure. The average person speaks approximately 20,000 words per day. Our memory retrieves words from a data bank of 50,000 to 170,000 unique English words and arranges them into phrases in fractions of seconds. By preparing phrases in advance, you can avoid the pitfall of meaning to say something and saying something else. “That’s not what I meant to say” is a lament that springs from anger, nerves, and plain lack of preparation.

“Help me understand” is a versatile phrase that can be wielded in various contexts to significant effect.

People want to be heard. They want their viewpoints validated and respected. “Help me understand” puts the person saying it in a position to receive, ideally without judgment. Whether you’re seeking clarification, empathizing with someone’s perspective, or attempting to bridge a gap in understanding, this three-word phrase carries immense power. Let’s explore how:

1. Clarification and Insight

When faced with a complex topic or differing opinions, saying “help me understand” signals your genuine interest in gaining clarity. It invites the other person to explain their viewpoint in more detail and allows you to get a better handle on it. This fosters better communication and demonstrates your humility and openness to learning. If you’re a job candidate, you could say to a prospective boss or hiring manager: “Help me understand how this role interacts daily with the global team” to display deeper interest in the position.

2. Empathetic Listening

Empathy forms the cornerstone of meaningful connections. By using “help me understand,” you acknowledge that you may not fully grasp someone else’s experiences or emotions but are willing to step into their shoes, listen, and validate their feelings. To a friend or co-worker whose pet died, you could say: “Help me understand how I can help you grieve the loss of your dog Charlie.” It is more heartfelt than a mere “Sorry for your loss.”

3. Building Bridges

In situations where disagreements or misunderstandings arise, “help me understand” serves as a bridge to mutual understanding. Rather than engaging in a defensive or confrontational stance where you may be tempted to say, “You’re wrong,” the phrase encourages dialogue and paves the way for a resolution. To a dissatisfied client or customer, you could say: “Help me understand why you think the product fell short of your expectations.” The answer may surprise you and lead to a stronger relationship.

4. Conflict Resolution

In moments of tension or disagreement, employ “help me understand” to de-escalate the situation and spark constructive dialogue. By seeking to understand the root of the issue, you can work towards finding common ground and resolving conflicts amicably.

Here is an example of a workplace scenario where conflict turned to compromise: Two colleagues, Sarah and John, are clashing over the timeline for a project. Sarah believes the company is ready now; John insists on a three-month delay. Sarah says, “John, I understand you have a different perspective on the timing for this project. Could you help me understand why we should go with your rollout plan?” By including “help me understand” in the conversation, Sarah demonstrates her willingness to listen to John’s rationale. He feels respected and receptive to a productive discussion where both parties can explore the merits of each approach. They eventually reached a compromise and set an example for better team cohesion and collaboration.

In a world where genuine connections are often overshadowed by superficial interactions, the power of language cannot be underestimated. By harnessing the potency of phrases like “help me understand,” you can transcend barriers, foster empathy, and forge meaningful relationships with those around you. So, the next time you find yourself in a conversation, remember the magic of these three simple words and watch as they pave the way for deeper connections.

Rosemary Ravinal

Business leaders and entrepreneurs who want to elevate their public speaking impact, executive presence, and media interview skills come to me for personalized attention and measurable results. I am recognized as America’s Premier Bilingual Public Speaking Coach after decades as a corporate spokesperson and media personality in the U.S. mainstream, Hispanic and Latin American markets. My company’s services are available for individuals, teams, in-person and online, and in English and Spanish in South Florida and elsewhere.

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