The art of understanding and being understood – part I

Reading Time: 8 minutes

“What is essential is invisible to the eye”

I like the period of summer, holidays, and slowing down. Seeing the world closer, as if through a magnifying glass. Having closer contact with nature. Noticing what is missing. Noticing bees, blooming flowers, growing tomatoes, cucumbers, strawberries, raspberries, and currants. Creating a closer relationship with nature. Understanding its needs, reading messages, and responding to them.

Recently, I have realized that understanding nature’s needs are about watching closely and listening. It is also focusing on observing whether my response to the needs is correct or whether I have understood the message. It requires a lot of concentration, mindfulness, and openness to the other side. And just as I can focus, observe and be mindful of what is happening to my plant, I also need good relationship habits. Not only with a partner, but in children’s relations with their parents and vice versa, with friends, neighbors, co-workers, the lady in the office, and the bus driver.

Most of us are well acquainted with the book “The Little Prince” by A. de Saint-Exupery and the quote from it And now here is my secret, a very simple secret:  It is only with the heart that one can see rightly;  what is essential is invisible to the eye. All in all, this one sentence could say everything about what habits to form when building a relationship. Simply – listen, look and understand with your heart; see and hear what is not seen and heard. As someone once aptly summed it up with the sentence: To understand people, you have to try to hear what they never say and perhaps never would say.

It seems to be all so obvious – you know, empathy and so on. But am I aware of how many ways of communication and understanding are open by the ability to truly understand others? Do I realize how helpful it is to build a habit of understanding in relationships with others?

Looking through your glasses

You probably know from experience such a situation that you enter a room and say: “Open the windows, how hot is it here!” And you hear: “Nooo, it’s cold in here! I just put on a sweater!” The temperature is 23 degrees. Is anyone wrong? No, each of those people there is right from its point of view.

Each of us sees the world through its glasses, which are created by our origin, history, loved ones, life experiences. We wear them every day and they shape our system of values, expectations, opinions, and ratings. They shape what world we want, what we consider as good and as not. Each of us wears its individual model. Sees reality in its own way. Hence, difficulties in understanding, because we have different images of what surrounds us.

Stephen R. Covey writes in his book “The 7 Habits of a Happy Family”: First let’s learn to understand and listen to others, and then  -learn to seek understanding. It opens the way to true honesty. Nothing revealing, right? But think of people you know and who live together but don’t have relationships? They are close, but still far from each other. They exchange information but don’t know about each other’s needs, dreams. And how many people you know, who live thousands of kilometers apart, but know each other very well? They know practically everything about themselves, share their worlds, and are interested in each other’s side. Maybe you have such experiences yourself? It is not the distance that separates people, but the lack of interest and understanding.

So I guess it’s not that easy to really and honestly understand someone. Because what does that actually mean? To develop the habit of understanding is learning to understand first and then, to be understood. To put on someone else’s glasses. Try to experience, feel for what someone is experiencing. Misunderstanding is the cause of conflict in relationships, rejection, and turning away. Most mistakes are not caused by bad intentions, but because we do not understand the other side. We don’t take off our glasses. Even when we say “I understand you”, is it really so, or is it just a phrase that we use? Are we sure we understand someone else’s situation? Some time ago, after the tragic death of a person close to me, one of my friends wrote to me this: “I have no idea what you and your family must be going through, but I hold you tight. If you need anything, I am ready to support you. ” Those were very important words because she said she didn’t know what it was like to be in my glasses, didn’t say she understood me, but just gave the message that she was close if I needed her.

“People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care”.

If we lack the will to truly enter the story of the other person, to be sincerely open, to listen, if we lack interest in what someone really feels, we separate. Until we are able to take off our glasses, we will not be able to build deep, honest relationships. Not understanding is the lack of a picture of what is going on inside someone, what is going on in someone’s heart. Hence an easy way to judge which is somehow our defense. It’s easier to do it, to stick a label than to make an effort to understand the other party. And it is very close to pigeonholing. When we judge once, then all subsequent behavior of that person is interpreted in a way that confirms our theory. Theodore Roosevelt said: “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care”. The desire to be understood is the greatest desire of the human heart. Being understood, not judged or commented on. “If you could understand me, you would not judge,” we sometimes say.

Until we really understand the other people, we won’t know how to support them, what to do, and how to help. Each of us is different. In order to show sympathy, love, it has to be done in an individual way that suits that person. You need to know the language that somebody speaks. Whether they are gestures or actions or just words. Some of us do not need words in communication, it is enough if someone gives us a hug, just sits next to us, understands our condition, and makes coffee. Others prefer to hear specific words spoken. Not advice, not solutions, but words of understanding, compassion. And others – they just need to be in silence. 

When to say “stop”?

We quite often transfer our own feelings and behavior to others. Put our glasses on someone’s nose. If I think so, others should too. If it is important to me, then it should be for someone. If I need it in a given situation, it will also help him or her. However, each of us has own world, own values. Something that is delightful to me, may be the ordinary business for the other person. Something that helps me, it doesn’t work that way for the other person. Think, when things don’t work out for you, your plans go wrong, what do you need in such a situation? Stay with yourself? Talk with somebody? Go for a run or go for a swim? And what do your friends, partner, and colleagues do in such situations? Do they always react the same as you?

Each of us has different needs and reacts differently. When we try to offer someone something that works for us, without recognizing what the other side needs, instead of getting closer, we create distance. Let’s take this situation: you are a fan of big surprise parties. You decide to do this for a colleague. But you don’t know that he likes meetings in a quiet place, in a small group. You organize a mega party for him, you engage people, time, and money. When it finally happens, you don’t see the enthusiasm in the birthday man, rather confusion. And you do not know what’s going on, maybe you are even angry that you put in so much work, and here – no expected response! Exactly … If you don’t make a “stop” to consider what glasses the other person is wearing, instead of getting closer to each other, you will start to distance yourself and judge. You can even then hear, “You don’t understand me at all.” And yet the point is to know what is super important to the other party, what matters, what the person is guided by.

How to learn it, how to build a habit of understanding, you will learn in the next post. Meanwhile, I invite you to a short reflection 🙂

Think about the last situation, when you talked to someone, when someone told you about his or her experience, shared some happy or bad news.

  • How did you react then?
  • What were you thinking about?
  • What were you trying to focus on?
  • Whose glasses were you looking through?
  • What did you do with your glasses?
  • Did you take yours off? Did you try to put them on the other person?
  • By saying “I understand”, did you really understand what the person was saying?

Write your answers and read again. Think about what could be done differently. 


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