Don't Just Nod Your Head and Smile

(picture originally uploaded to Flickr by Eleaf)

A few months ago, Seth Godin had this post on his blog:

“If you’re in a meeting with smart people and they start discussing a term or concept you don’t understand, what do you do?

Do you know what recombinant DNA is? Analytics? Chapter 7? Fair use? RSS? The Long Tail?

If smart people in your industry are talking about an issue you don’t know cold, it’s very important that you don’t just sit there and nod your head sagely. I think there are two constructive paths. The first is to ask. “Wait, I was with you until a second ago. What does that mean?” You’ll be amazed at how smart and engaging this makes you seem if you say it at the right time.

The second approach is to write it down and not go to bed that night until you know the topic better than the person who brought it up. How else, precisely, are you going to become one of the smart people?”

The tendency for many of us when we hear a term or concept we don’t understand is to simply nod our heads as if we know what is being said, to not say anything at all, or to zone out. We don’t want to be perceived as stupid or we are frustrated that we don’t know what’s being talked about. If we follow through with advice like that of Seth Godin, though, we show that we want to learn, and learners aren’t stupid.

It’s not easy to ask questions when you don’t understand what’s being said. It’s scary at first. I quickly learned to do it, though, in university because I had one professor who would point-blank ask you if you understood what he was saying and have you tell him back in your own words what he was talking about if you never engaged and asked questions. Boy was it embarrassing to be caught nodding your head as if you understood what was being said and then put on the spot revealing you were clueless. If I stopped, though, and asked questions of this professor when I didn’t understand what he was saying, he was more than happy to explain.

Over the years, I’ve found this to be very helpful, and I’ve learned a lot. I’ve been able to learn from many different disciplines and learn many things I wouldn’t have learned otherwise.

As leaders, we need to keep learning. We don’t have to know everything, and we shouldn’t pretend that we do.


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2 thoughts on “Don't Just Nod Your Head and Smile

  1. amy dolan says:

    great post! i sometimes feel like i waste time when i leave a meeting and can't fgure out what i'm supposed to do. i have to consistantly remind myself in meetings that taking the time to ask a question for clarity – will save me time later.

    thanks for the reminder!

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