Understanding 'I don’t understand'

“I don’t understand!”

Well in Japan, particularly, that statement can be quite a Pandora’s Box — or treasure trove, depending on your point of view. Employees who respond in this way may have a number of subterranean issues bubbling away. As managers, our ability to plumb the depths of what they are saying is integral to success.

Below are five hidden meanings behind that response. Gauging which one applies is the combined IQ and emotional intelligence quotient (EQ) test for managers. Here are a few hints on passing the test and getting your just reward—keeping your job!

1. Don’t know what to do
They may genuinely not understand the task content or have enough experience to execute what you require of them. They may not want to confess to their lack of ability, because they fear the consequences.

2. Don’t know how to do it
Funnily enough, it would appear that common sense is not so common. What is obvious to a seasoned, experienced manager might as well be Martian to their staff. Logic works in mysterious ways, so the way forward may be unclear.

3. Don’t believe they can do it
This is closely linked to the Big Black Book of Failure. This infamous tome, usually squirreled away in the bowels of the HR department, captures and records everyone’s errors (made because they didn’t know better or despite knowing better), crimes (reflecting intent to do harm) and disasters (the result of deviation from accepted practice). Therefore, a certain inspired logic informs us that it is better to do nothing than to make a mistake. Fear of falling short of expectations or performance minimums is thus re-branded as “I don’t understand”.

4. Don’t know why they should do it
This has two variations. One is “Why should ‘I’ be doing this?” In other words, in my highly refined and defined world view, my guidebook to avoiding inclusion in the Big Black Book of Failure says to do precisely what is in my job description and to avoid straying into exotic areas even though they may interest my manager. The second variation is more bold, reflecting the idea that the task or project is of dubious, little or no value — so why do it?

5. Don’t want to do it
Ah, we have arrived at last. Employees know what happens to “nails that stick out” and they know that challenging your whacky ideas is a path to pain. Thus, they think, “There is no way I am going to do this, but I will just say ‘I don’t understand’”.

So facing that sea of inscrutable staff faces, all certified masters of silence and obfuscation, how do we work out what is the problem?

Some gentle probing will ascertain whether the employees know what to do. For example, the reply to the question, “Have you ever done this task before?” will establish whether you are facing blank, terrified total ignorance. The answer to this question usually takes care of understanding numbers 1 and 2 above.

If the answer is negative, the penchant of many a boss to show off vast knowledge, capability and experience should be avoided—unless you want to be doing their job as well as your own, with no reduction in head count and no increase in your own remuneration.

If the answer is positive, we move on to see whether response 3, indicating self doubt, is the issue. “Is there anything about this task this time which you believe is going be difficult (code word for impossible, when rendered in Japanese as “muzukashii”). If the answer comes back as “No”, or concerns are stated that don’t seem insurmountable, then we need to see if response 4 is the issue.

Here some background on your reasons for choosing these particular employees for the task could be helpful: “I chose you for this task because I know I can rely on you, even though you are so busy with other work”, or “The reason this project is important to me is … ”. A “trial close” at this point is useful. “Are you happy to do this task?” If they say “Yes”, we are off to the races; otherwise, we are getting down to it at last.

Their answer stating why they are not happy to do the task will tell you all you need to know about the reason or reasons your idea won’t work in Japan. It is always useful to get that type of feedback. After a studied pause, you might say: “Good point. Let’s get a few of the team together and see if it is possible to work our way through these barriers”. That generally works well.

Good luck!

Author Infomation

Dr Greg Story
Dr Greg Story
The author is president of Dale Carnegie Training Japan.
  • 2


    none of this makes any sense to me. glad i don`t work corporate.

  • 1


    Why make something simple so complicated?

    Instead of trying to find a problem for your Dale Carnegie "solution" why on Earth don't you just get in communication with the employee who says they don't understand?

    Forget the theory, just ask what they don't understand and listen to their answer.

    People will tell you if you make it safe for them to do so.

  • 1


    Wonder what this guy wud advise when YOU KNOW the person can do whats asked of them because they have been doing it for years on end, YET each time you have the same or similar task at hand you have to take their hand & walk them through the same steps, day after day, year after year, this just drives me bananas, were are not talking about new borns or uni grads, I get this a lot with people 30+ & beyond, it takes up way way too much time. Especially when they dont work for me & are supposed to be providing me with their service, if I had a single yen for ever curse word uttered after hanging up the phone I cud have retired years ago!

  • 0


    Its everywhere in every situation in every walk of life, it is easier to just say wakaranai than to actually do anything.

    That is why this country stagnated and is now sliding backwards at a rapid pace.

    Shoganai ne !

  • 0


    After many years contemplation, I'm now able to divine what the "I don't understand" means in any given circumstance. If anyone wants to know the answer, I charge ¥1,000.

  • 0


    I do not understand this article. Which one of the above am I?

    The first one.

  • -1


    Why ask them a simple question when you can fork out for a consultant to do it for you?! ;)

  • -1


    And do all this in Nihongo, of course. Don't forget that.

  • -1


    "Wakaranai": That's all I can say when someone writes/speaks to me in Nihongo (kanji). Then they explain it to me (in Eigo). Case closed.

  • -1


    Their answer stating why they are not happy to do the task will tell you all you need to know about the reason or reasons your idea won’t work in Japan

    Like their going to go from obfuscatory response straight to the truth? A bit optimistic.

  • -1


    No way!


  • -1




  • -1


    This article could also discuss "I don't know" and the slight differences between this and "I don't understand" as these phrases are used differently in Japanese for what may appear to be similar meanings for native English speakers.

  • -2


    "Don't want to do it"

    No doubt.

    "There is no way I am going to do this."

    Yes, way, ha ha!

  • -9


    Article rings true and clear after going through several secretaries who played all of the above cards. So frustrating - makes you wonder what they teach them in the schools here, because it sure isn't how to think on their own.

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