When people fail to do as they have been assigned, the list of excuses is endless. Among them are the “I-didn’t-understand” excuses:
- “Oh, I didn’t know you meant for me to give you the whole report. I thought you meant that you just wanted the summary.”
- “The whole kitchen? I thought you just wanted me to wipe off the counters.”
- “You said to mow the lawn. You didn’t say I had to pick up the clumps of grass (those big clumps that fall out of the mower when the lawn is wet and kill the underlying grass).”
- “I didn’t understand that we’d be tested on the whole book (even though that is exactly what was stated). I thought the test would be on the material covered since the last test.”
Allow me to share a metaphor I have used many times over the years when people have said, “I didn’t understand” or “I thought you meant . . .”
Let’s suppose that every week I go to a certain store, and on each occasion the owner makes a mistake in the amount he charges me. I keep a written record of these mistakes, and after a year I finally present my list to him. He claims—with apparent sincerity—that many of the prices are printed too small, and sometimes he just can’t see them clearly. How can I determine whether he’s telling the truth? Easy: If his mistakes are approximately half in my favor and half in his favor, his explanation is believable. If all the mistakes are in his favor, however, his vision is not the problem. Instead, he’s been exposed as a thief and a liar.
Notice that when people say, “I didn’t understand” or “I thought you meant . . .” invariably they have done LESS than was requested of them. Their confusion rarely—if ever—causes them to do more than they were asked:
- “Oh, you only wanted me to rake the leaves? I thought you wanted the whole yard cleaned up, so after raking, I mowed the lawn, picked up the sticks, and burned all the leaves.”
- “I misunderstood. When you said to get this report done as soon as possible, I didn’t know that you meant sometime this week, so I stayed up all night and finished it.”
When somebody consistently uses the “I didn’t understand” excuse to do LESS than they were asked, that is not a lack of understanding. It’s lazy and selfish, and most of us do this. We hear what we want to hear.
Often we’re not consciously aware of our deception, but we need to learn to recognize it in ourselves and to point it out when it’s used by people we have a responsibility to teach—our children and employees, for example.