It doesn’t matter how smart you are, you will undoubtedly encounter things in your career that you are just completely lost on.
You may be an incredible editor who doesn’t understand the first thing about your site’s code base. Or you may have a deft touch at making clients feel special but not get the first thing about invoicing. Heck, you’ve probably been in a situation at work where someone said something that sounded like a foreign language.
And you probably nodded the entire time in agreement—then ran to your computer to Google what the hell they were talking about.
Most of us fear coming across as incompetent or not smart enough, so the natural reaction in this situation is to pretend you understand something, rather than admit you are confused and lost.
Problem is, every time you do that, you miss a chance to learn something from an expert. Think about it like this: Would you think it was bad if someone asked you to explain something you know a lot about? No! You’d feel flattered and great because you got to help someone.
I know hardly anything, so I ask people to explain things to me all the time. And further, I always ask them to explain it to me like I’m a four-year-old. Literally.
Why? Doing this accomplishes two things: One, it makes a joke about not knowing something, which can lighten the conversation. But two, and more importantly, it forces the person to simplify things down their most basic elements, so you can more easily understand what’s going on.
For example, the other day someone was explaining a very technical SEO problem we were having. I probably should know this stuff, but I don’t. So I stopped him and said, “explain the problem to me like I’m a four-year old.” He looked at me like I was joking, so I insisted. The result? Rather than launching into a diatribe about meta tags, crawling, and site mapping, he simply said, “basically, your pages aren’t telling Google they exist.” Boom. That makes sense. And I could better contribute to the conversation moving forward.
No, you shouldn’t use this in all situations (if you’re a PR manager and ask your boss to explain press releases to you like you’re a four-year-old, there’s a problem), but next time you’re talking about something that’s outside of your wheelhouse and don’t get, try this little trick. You’ll be amazed at how much easier it is to understand new concepts and actually learn.