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A Bad Habit: The Lazy Check-In Question

Have you ever been sucked in by a food commercial to realize after you purchase the food, it looks nothing like the commercial? Here your mouth is watering, and you are chewing cardboard. The same thing can happen with executives who use the lazy check-in question. They intend the question to come across professional and polished, but it can fall flat and even have a negative impact.

What is the lazy check-in question? When a professional says something along the lines of:

Do you follow me?

Does that make sense?

Do you understand me?

In this article, we will discuss issues with the lazy check-in question and two solutions.

What are the issues?

Issue 1: Closed question. When most professionals check in with their audience, they use a closed-ended question, such as "Do you understand? Does that make sense? Are you with me? Are you following me?" These are closed questions that feel more rhetorical and only elicit a yes/no response, if any response at all. These questions don't create much of a dialogue.

Issue 2: Leading question. When we ask lazy check-in questions, they can come across like a leading question where we are leading the audience to respond with "yes". Why does the audience respond with "yes"? It's faster, doesn't create conflict, they don't want to slow the speaker down, don't want to be rude, or don't want to come across like they don't understand what the speaker is saying.

Issue 3: It can create unnecessary conflict. Let's imagine there is a rare instance when someone says, "no, that doesn't make sense." Now you are in a potentially awkward position. The speaker may be thinking, "Oh, it doesn't make sense to you. Let me explain that again, like I'm explaining it to my brother's kids. I'm obviously sarcastic; you would never say that, but if an audience member responds with "no", it can create unintended conflict.

Issue 4: It can come across condescending. If the executive says, "does this make sense?" multiple times, it can come across as condescending after enough time.

Issue 5: It doesn't invite the audience to speak up. Why? These types of questions put the pressure on the audience's comprehension. Do you follow me? Do you understand me? Are you with me? Who wants to admit they're slow and can't understand something? No one. This type of question doesn't invite the audience to speak up.

What are the solutions?

If your goal with the check-in question is to keep the audience involved, start a dialogue, or make sure we are making sense, focus on putting pressure on your explanation instead of the audience's comprehension. Here are two options to make your check-in questions more inviting.

Option 1: Use an open-ended question that puts pressure on your explanation instead of the audience's comprehension.

Instead of: Do you follow me? Ask: What can I clarify?

Instead of: Are you with me? Ask: Let me pause there and check-in.

Instead of: Do you understand? Ask: What can I cover in more detail?

Instead of: Does that make sense? Ask: What questions are on your mind?

Open-ended questions invite others to say more, and the frame of these questions puts pressure on your explanation.

Option 2: Consider adding a self-deprecating statement before the open-ended question. Here are some examples.

  • I went over that topic quickly, what can I go back and clarify?

  • I can sometimes be too technical, what can I touch on further that would be useful?

  • I speak quickly at times, what can I cover again?

  • I want to check in since I went over that faster than I would have liked. What can I clear up?

Let's take a moment to discuss when it might be more effective and less useful to use a self-deprecating statement. Research shows self-deprecation is more effective when there is a power or status difference. Imagine if you were meeting with your CEO, and they said, "I went over that a little quicker than I would have liked." You are likely to find the senior person relatable and would be more willing to speak up. Therefore, self-deprecation works if you are in a position of power or authority. One important caveat is to make sure self-deprecation suits your personality; otherwise, it might seem forced or disingenuous.

On the other hand, according to a Financial Times article by Lucy Kellaway, "when you are more junior, it doesn't always work because people might agree with you, and that's where self-deprecation can backfire." One other study on gender in boardroom meetings found that when women use self-deprecation, it can fall flat or have a negative impact. According to researcher Dr. Judith Baxter, "women are four times more likely than men to be self-deprecating, use humor and speak indirectly or apologetically when broaching difficult subjects with board members in order to avoid conflict. And it doesn't always work." Dr. Baxter said, "language called 'double voice discourse' (DvD), is used because women were often heavily outnumbered on boards." This doesn't mean you shouldn't use self-deprecation, but I think it is important for both audiences and speakers to understand the nuances of the tool and its impacts.

Language is one of the best tools you have as a working professional. Therefore, I encourage you to identify any lazy check-in questions you ask consciously or unconsciously. Replace these questions with open-ended questions that will invite your audience to speak up. Select open-ended questions that are authentic and suit your personality. This is extremely important for people in management, sales, or any other client-facing roles. After all, we do not want to alienate our clients with a lazy unconscious habit.

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