Wednesday 25 November 2020

How To Understand People and Be Understood

One of the most beautiful qualities of true friendship is to understand and to be understood.

Someone once told me we have no right to expect others to understand us. She was adamant about that. Angry, almost, that anyone could imagine otherwise. The most we can expect, she said, was to be heard. I was reminded of this recently when a close friend said it felt like I didn't know her at all. I got to thinking about what it means to know someone or be known by them.

To Know or to Understand?

What exactly do we mean by knowing or understanding one another? Is there a difference between knowing someone and understanding them? Ephrat Livni drew a distinction in his article It’s better to understand something than to know it:

“Knowing” and “understanding” are related concepts, but they’re not the same. Each is a distinct mental state involving cognitive grasp: Knowing is static, referring to discrete facts, while understanding is active, describing the ability to analyze and place those facts in context to form a big picture.

Livni was discussing these concepts in a business and scientific context, but I think the distinction is useful when we’re thinking about our awareness of ourselves and others. Our friendships and relationships are not static things we can ever fully grasp or know. They are dynamic. They wax and wane over time. They deepen as we learn more about each other. Sometimes they fracture or end. They may pause or stall for a time but their nature is to change. The same applies to us as individuals.

We might seek to know each other at any point in time, but for me, the fundamental need is to be understood at a deeper level. Our lives are incredibly complex and interlinked, and our understanding can only ever be partial, Nevertheless, it is this yearning that underpins our need to understand and to be understood, and our pain when that need is unmet.

Is It a Healthy Need?

I disagree with the person who said we’ve no right to expect understanding from others, but am I right? Is it a healthy need? The Center for Nonviolent Communication (CNVC) includes the need to understand others and be understood in its needs inventory. I’m no means an expert but NVC’s approach to communication makes a lot of sense to me. Fran and I have used it when we’re exploring issues that arise between us or with others. Ralph Nichols, “Father of Listening” and author of Are You Listening, went further. He claimed “The most basic of all human needs is the need to understand and be understood. The best way to understand people is to listen to them.”

What Do We Want People to Understand about Us?

A few months ago a friend asked me twenty questions she’d found in an online “How Well Do You Know Me” quiz. It was fun and we had a good laugh at some of the questions — and my answers! I surprised myself actually, in getting more right than I’d imagined. Understanding is more than a game of twenty questions, though. What do we want others to understand about us? It will be different for everyone but here’s what I’d like people to understand about me.

  • My likes and dislikes
  • My values and red lines
  • My plans, hopes, and dreams
  • My issues and triggers
  • What scares and delights me, what makes me smile and cry
  • What I need when I’m sad or struggling

It may be a tall order to expect someone to understand me on so many levels, although Fran comes close. On the other hand, I believe it is possible to have people who understand certain aspects of me really well. What counts is whether someone is willing to engage, to learn, and understand — and allow me to do the same. Taylor Swift captures this commitment in her song Stay Stay Stay:

You took the time to memorize me
My fears, my hopes and dreams

It’s worth remembering that no matter how close the relationship there will always be things we choose not to share; aspects of ourselves and our lives we wish to hold secret from most, if not all, others.

What Does It Take to Be Understood?

We can’t hope to understand or be understood if we’re not prepared to truly communicate; in NVC terms, to listen with empathy and express ourselves honestly. We all like to imagine we’re open and honest with everyone, but this is perilous work and not to be undertaken lightly. Allowing people in close requires trust and courage, and the more we engage the more vulnerable we make ourselves. Psychoanalyst Thomas Moore describes this well in his book Care of the Soul:

We need people in our lives with whom we can be as open as possible. To have real conversations with people may seem like such a simple, obvious suggestion, but it involves courage and risk.

It’s very important who we choose to open up to, as BrenĂ© Brown makes clear in her book Daring Greatly:

You cannot be vulnerable with everyone. It is important to build trust and boundaries before being vulnerable. Otherwise, more times than ever, you will end up getting betrayed and hurt.

This is especially true where experience has taught us not to let people in too close as a defence against betrayal, abandonment, and loss. Psychic and life coach Jamila White expresses this powerfully in her piece Ultra-independence is a trust issue:

You learned along the way that you just couldn’t really trust people. Or that you could trust people, but only up to a certain point.

Even without such issues, connecting clearly and cleanly is not as straightforward as we sometimes imagine it to be, as Fran and I discuss in our book High Tide, Low Tide.

Perhaps the greatest obstacle to communicating effectively is the belief it should be easy. When you think about it, it is amazing anyone manages to communicate anything meaningful at all. Each of us has our unique mix of thoughts and feelings, hopes, fears, joys, pains, plans, worries, and views about how the world works. We scarcely understand them ourselves, yet we hope to share them with someone who has their own mix to contend with. And the only tools we have are the sounds we can utter, and the marks we can make on paper or a computer screen. It is no wonder we struggle at times!

Given the potential for misunderstanding and hurt, why do we risk it? Why do we want to be understood at all? This can only be a personal thing but for me there is a deep joy in feeling known in the moment, and understood at a more fundamental level. It’s expressed beautifully in an anonymous quotation which inspired a previous blog post of mine.

Imagine meeting someone who wanted to learn your past not to punish you, but to understand how you needed to be loved.

The fact that this understanding can only ever be partial and temporary doesn’t lessen the reward. On the contrary, it deepens it. The gap between what I understand of myself and what my friend understands of me is fertile ground. Any difficulties that come up are part of the journey towards understanding, rather than problems to be avoided or shunned.

It’s worth saying that being understood can be uncomfortable. My friend and fellow mental health blogger Aimee Wilson shared this with me recently:

I feel like you know me through and through, Marty. Sometimes that’s annoying and I don’t like it, but ultimately I think it helps our friendship.

In what way is it annoying?

It’s like if I say something and you’ll be like “I thought so.” I’m in no way saying I don’t want you to do that anymore, just that in a funny way I’m like “fs he knows me so well.”

I find it disconcerting when someone can tell how I’m feeling before I’ve told them, sometimes before I’m fully aware of it myself. Fran does this a lot and it’s not always what I need, especially if I’m faking fine — pretending I’m doing better than I actually am.

Getting it Wrong

Understanding someone doesn’t mean never getting it wrong. In fact, we’re more likely to get it wrong with people we feel we understand because we tend to act on the basis of what we know, or believe we know. That’s what happened with me and my friend who said it felt like I didn’t know her at all. We’ve moved forward since then, but it was a valuable reminder not to become complacent or assume I understand people better than I actually do.

Another friend contacted me the other day. She wanted to talk but I was working from home and couldn’t pay her the full attention she needed. I told her so and we agreed to see how we got on, but it didn’t work and we soon ran aground. She messaged me later:

Understanding is hard and requires patience, which is in short order these days. To understand and be understood takes time. It’s [about] understanding when your friend has a lot to do, and also understanding when your friend is three days without sleep. It’s picking up on cues that can be silent, and not missing much when you’re with your friends …

Although unpleasant, mistakes like these can be valuable because they offer the opportunity to grow in understanding. I’ve written in the past about other occasions when I’ve worked through disagreements and issues honestly with friends. Aimee and I have had our share of misunderstandings, but we’ve been honest about them and emerged stronger:

I’m not sure if you agree, Aimee, but I’d say we understand there are times we will get it wrong, and that’s OK. It might not feel OK at the time but it will be when we are able to step back a little.

Definitely! And I think more and more we’re learning not to feel like total failures if we do get it wrong, and not blame one another for it.

I’ll close with another short passage from High Tide, Low Tide. Fran and I believe profoundly that the secret to understanding is honest and ongoing communication.

Approach your friend on the basis that you are each doing the best you can. Be gentle with yourself and with each other when things are not flowing well, and celebrate when they are. Good or bad, keep the channels open.

Do you feel understood by your friends and loved ones? Do you have a good understanding of those you’re close to? If not, you wish you did? Fran and I would love to hear from you.



Writing this article has made me realise how fortunate I am to have friends who understand me — not perfectly, perhaps, but well. They understand what makes me who I am; the things that are important to me, my hang-ups, frailties, and strengths. They get it wrong with me sometimes, of course, just as I get it wrong with them. But they get me, and that’s a really good feeling. Oh, and the person who told me we’ve no right to expect others to understand us? Ironically, she believed she had a really good handle on who I was. She was invariably wrong.


Photo by Diego Sanchez on Unsplash

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