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I first noticed this effect in college, when the prof would be talking about something that didn't make sense to me. If I remained silent, he'd never explain (of course) and I'd remain ignorant. However, whenever I asked him, everyone would start furiously writing down his explanation in their notes.

So I got into the habit of saying "I don't understand". Inevitably, there would be quite a number of other people who also didn't understand, but were afraid to ask, so I'd just ask first. That stuck with me throughout my career and served me well. If you don't understand, ask.

Also, contrary to common sentiment, there is no minimum competency level that grants you the privilege of saying "I don't understand." Ignorance is not a monopoly of the elite.

Did you usually just say "I don't understand"... or was it more like "I get how a works with b when c occurs. But you lost me when you were talking about how it happens over z, I don't get the distinction, could you go into that?"

It's not about plain ignorance, but conscious incompetence. That can be a great deal of work to attain in a given domain, getting to that "I know what I don't know" place so you can actually make pointed questions. You have to have a fairly good map of the territory already to begin filling in the gaps.

Many of those people furiously writing probably didn't even know where to begin to ask... just write the stuff down now, understand later. Asking "I don't understand" doesn't make you look stupid, it's the follow-up "what don't you understand?", and then showing you can't even get into a proper discussion about your ignorance.


I'm a teacher and I like students who ask me to re-explain or re-present a step in an argument. In fact, I use techniques designed to find out how much my students know and 'how they know it'. I teach fairly basic Maths, and different students learn the basics in different ways.

I'd like a student who could articulate which step in a complex argument is the issue even more! I usually ask follow up questions to find out where the issue is without putting the questioner on the spot.

> In fact, I use techniques designed to find out how much my students know and 'how they know it'. I teach fairly basic Maths, and different students learn the basics in different ways.

This sounds interesting. Could you talk more about it?

OK, take a question like 'which is bigger, one fifth or one third or one half'. Some people just know the bigger number on the bottom of the fraction means that is smaller, for unit fractions. Other people have to visualise the fractions as a pizza and compare the slices. A few people have to take an actual value like 30 and work out the values of each of the fractions. They all solve the problem, but the 'way they know' is different.

A longer example is at


Yeah, I don't think you should ever say, "I don't understand", it comes off as lazy, you're making the other person do all the work. Give them a little more to go on, tell them what you've understood so far and what you need clarification on.

Right, I really dislike when people say generally "I don't get it". I have no idea where I need to re-explain something, and I end up starting over from the beginning a different way. Sometimes, after a couple rounds of this, I just have to stop and say, "I'm not sure what you're confused about, why don't you help me a little in clarifying what you need info on?". I quickly lose patience (and respect) for someone who doesn't take an active role in understanding. Conversely I have no problem going over something N times with someone if they can help me map out their (not)understanding of something, because then progress can be made.

Even if you aren't sure what you don't understand, narrowing your questions or explaining your reasoning on things you do understand (or think you understand, sometimes we all are wrong on some key assumption that changes everything) can help your tutor fill in the bits that help explanation. Further, this sort of exercise is an example of metacognition, which teaching theory suggests is a very vital part of directed learning.

It was more like the latter. I don't play those sorts of games.

This is the first thing I look for in candidates. Ability to ask questions. There is no such thing as a dumb question, there is no such thing as asking too much (almost). The most confident and able developers I worked with were those who felt free to say "I lost you at your first sentence".

I think that it is the explainer's responsibility to explain it in a way that will be 1) understood by others 2) not intimidating, so if it's not understood, people will still feel they can ask.

Crafting an explanation in a way that others can follow is one of the most powerful and useful skills a developer or manager can strive to achieve, not just the ability to understand others who don't have this skill.

E.g. if I hear "I don't understand" I don't think "ok, this person is not getting it", but rather "my explanation should be better"

I saw that as well. One student asked what seemed like silly questions, but later he got invited to apply for PhD and I did not.

On the other side of the equation, I had one amazing EE professor who would write something on the board, and before he turned around would say to the class "You don't understand this", erase it, and take a better approach. He was able to tell when the class didn't get his explanation and would improve it real-time.

Maybe the questions were exactly as silly as they seemed. I noticed this too, people (e.g. students) asking stupid stuff simply to force others to interact with them. It's a silly manipulation but it works well, too. It's a good maneuver to feign interest and enthusiasm, and to make superiors remember your name.

Another aspect for which you might attribute this to more senior devs is in their ability to know how deeply they need to understand something in order to implement it.

A lot of times when I'm building something in a problem space I don't know very well, I like to keep guidelines loose, because I know that I'll be taking some leaps in development, and I know I'll be working in areas where I'm not fully competent.

For those reasons, it's hard for me to envision the project start to finish -- I'll know the general steps, but each implementation detail is a variably sized black hole that I can't peer into until I get deeper into it.

For things I'm more familiar with, I'm able to ask better questions, and more easily identify when something isn't going to work, or at least not work as expected. To the lay person, I appear dumber on the things I know better because I'm able to ask more specific questions, so I ask more of them until I'm 100% confident that I do understand, and generally, at that point I can just do what I'm supposed to. Where I'm less competent, I ask fewer questions up front, but then way more as I'm doing to make sure that what I've ended up with is going to meet expectations.

Yes, absolutely. Asking questions is how you turn a lecture from a poor substitute for just reading about the subject into something far better.

From the other side I find it incredibly useful to get questions while speaking and I wish I was better at encouraging them. When writing a talk you have to write for some imaginary audience who won't ever quite match your actual one. But if you can get them to start asking questions then immediately you have the opportunity to tailor what you're doing for the audience in front of you. It's a very satisfying feeling :)

Any tips from anyone here for making people feel more inclined to ask questions? Often the ones who could most benefit (and create the most benefit for others) are the the ones least likely to have the confidence to do it.

> Any tips from anyone here for making people feel more inclined to ask questions?

Become more of an asshole.

There are probably more eloquent ways of phrasing that, but I want something that will stick in your mind when you're actually on the spot, and that works.

The idea here is to stop caring quite so much about what others want and what others will think of you.

If you constantly worry that you're interrupting the flow and that you'll be bogging everyone else down, don't. Embrace the asshole side of you to ask the question and damn the consequences.

If you worry that the people around you will think you're dense, fuck them. They don't have the first clue about you, and you're in that class for you, not for them.

Yes, when I'm talking about something to a group of people, I like questions, they let me know where I need to be more in depth and where I an keep glossing. However, a good answer from a presenter is in fact "I will cover that in a bit (a few slides, or whatever)", and part of being a good questioner is temporarily accepting "I don't understand this one thing" and working around it. Sometimes it turns out that a bit of understanding falls out of understanding other, surrounding bits of knowledge first. Being a good questioner/learning isn't just about understanding everything instantly or when you first notice you don't understand, but rather noting the places where you need clarification, and paying attention for things that fill in that knowledge.

>and you're in that class for you, not for them.

This! I believe this sums up the way people should behave when in a class.

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