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Understanding

Introduction

Understanding From Zero to Ten

Understanding, Empathy and Common Experiences

Understanding and Conflict

Understanding and Punishment

Understanding and Defensiveness - "You need to understand..."

The Relationship Between Judging and Understanding

Stories About Understanding

Understanding and Relief - How nice it feels to feel understood

A Father's Understanding - Better than a stuffed animal

Another Father's Reaction to this Page

Mejor Agua Fria - Cold water is better

Listening to Manuel - Using the 0-10 Scale

The Bus is Best

From Head to Toe - A mother who thought she understood her daughter completely

The Washing Up - Helping a 10 year old feel understood leads to her cooperation and apology

You Need to Understand - Airport Story

That's Not How Things Are, Jessica

Understanding, Depression and Suicide


Other Core Topics

Respect | Empathy
Caring | Listening
Understanding

Free EQ for Everybody Book


Introduction

We all have a need to be understood. This need is based on survival. If we are not understood we won't be able to communicate our needs. For example, if the baby needs food and can't communicate this, he could die of starvation. If a person needs help and no one understands this, he will not get the help he needs to survive.

 
Zero to Ten

A useful technique in communicating and understanding is to ask the question how much do you feel understood, from 0-10? You can ask this question in various ways. For example, you can ask someone how much they feel understood by someone else by saying, "How understood do you feel by your partner, from zero to ten?" Or you could ask, "How much do you feel understood by me, from 0-10?"

See more about the Zero to Ten question

 
Understanding, Empathy and Common Experiences

On the day when I posted the first version of this page on understanding I chatted with someone who was feeling suicidal. I was feeling very smug about being so good at understanding. This person told me she didn't care if she lived or died anymore. I tried to show her that I understood by saying "Ok, so you don't care if you live or die, is that right?" She said that was right and repeated she didn't care if she lived or died. I said, "Ok. I understand." Next I asked her how much she felt understood. We had talked many times and usually she feels very understood by me, so today I also expected a high score as well. Instead this is what she wrote:

Have you ever loved the sight of your blood seeping from your veins? i'm guessing not. so... explain to me how you could understand me today? i've been talking to you for only like 5 minutes. i haven't given you a chance to understand. but if i must tell you NOW, probly not at all. because you're not addicted to drugs, you don't have a deep passion for death, and as far as i know you can remember a time you were happy.

This reminded me never to make assumptions about understanding someone. It also reminded me that it takes more than technique to really help someone feel understood. And it reminded me that unless I have had the same experiences someone else has, and unless I have exactly the same level of innate emotional sensitivity, I could never really fully understand their pain.

But it also reminded me of the importance of feeling my own feelings. Until I started reflecting on my feelings and trying to identify them I had little or no empathy for anyone. I don't think I ever cried over someone else's pain until I was 35 years old, unless it was when I was too young to remember.

As I began to think about and really feel all of my various feelings, I started being able to relate to more and more people's pain, as well as their joy. I started thinking about when I felt proud, creative, resourceful, inspired, trusted, successful, fulfilled as well as when I felt judged, mocked, insulted, afraid, intimidated, controlled, trapped.

The more feelings I really experienced, the more I had in common with people who were, from outside appearances, very different from me. It is true that I have never loved the sight of my own blood seeping from my veins, but because I have felt rejected, alone, judged, misunderstood, unloved, unwanted and empty, as this person feels when she wants to die, I feel more empathy for her. In fact I started to cry during our conversation. I am sure this is partly from the pain of my own unmet emotional needs and partly from connecting with her pain. It might even be fair to say that my pain is what formed this connection between us. Either way, it was this kind of empathy which helped me stay there and listen to her for as long as she needed me to.

Even if two people can never fully understand each other, it is this kind of empathy that brings us one step closer together.

 
Understanding and Conflict

Many people agree that the best way to reduce conflicts, including international wars, is through mutual respect. Erich Fromm said, To respect a person is not possible without knowing him. He could have also said that respect is not possible without understanding the person. Understanding, therefore, is a key to conflict prevention and conflict resolution.

One of the best things ever said about understanding may be this

Seek first to understand, then to be understood.

Here is another good quote. (By Haim Ginott)

In an argument, the test of wisdom is the ability to summarize
the other person's view before starting one's own

To take this a step further you could actually ask the other person how much they feel understood from 0-10. Then listen till they feel understood 10. In fact, one of the quickest ways to stop any argument is to stop and ask the other person how much they feel understood.

Understanding someone does not always prevent or solve conflicts, but it does help us reach a mutually acceptable compromise.

See also "You need to understand"

 
Understanding and Punishment

Humans need understanding. We also need to understand why people do things. Therefore we need to teach all students and all future parents; all lawyers, all judges, all politicians and all police this message:

You will never understand a person by judging them. You will never understand a person by labeling them. You will never understand a person by insulting them. You will never understand a person by invalidating them. You will never understand a person by giving them orders. And you will never understand a person by punishing them.

 
Understanding and Defensiveness - You Need to Understand...

Sometimes when people are in a conflict, one person will interrupt the other and say: "You need to understand that.... "

Usually a person says this when they are feeling threatened and defensive. Often it is an authority figure whose authority is being questioned or it may be someone who has to enforce the company's or the organization's rules.

Here is an example. You're waiting on the phone for a very long time. When someone finally answers you let them know how frustrated you are and how much of an inconvenience having to wait has caused you. They interrupt you and say "Well, you need to understand that we have a lot of customers... "

When someone says this it doesn't help you feel any more understood. It probably only makes you feel more resentful because you don't feel listened to.

This violates the principle of "Seek first to understand then to be understood"

The other person wants you to understand them, but they have not taken the time to try to really understand you. If they did they would show you more empathy. Saying "you need to understand" doesn't show empathy. Instead I would say it is usually a form of invalidation.

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See also the story below about "You Need to Understand" at the airport.

 
The Relationship Between Judging and Understanding

It seems that there is a very clear and very strong inverse relationship between judging and understanding. In other words, when we are judging someone, we do not understand them, their motives, their needs, their values, their beliefs, their past.

We might even say that feeling judgmental and feeling understanding are mutually exclusive. This is similar to another mutually exclusive relationship between two feelings: feeling empathy and feeling defensive.

If we are aware that we are feeling judgmental, then it might help to remind ourselves that what we need is the opposite feeling to bring us back into equilibrium. The opposite feeling to feeling judgmental would be feeling understanding. So when we feel judgmental we might try to seek understanding of the other person or the situation.

Feeling judgmental and feeling accepting also seem to be nearly opposite feelings, at least at times. So we might also want to try to be more accepting when we notice that we are feeling judgmental.

 
Stories About Understanding

Understanding and Relief

One day I was trying to get a defective product replaced before I started a trip overseas. I made several phone calls and tried to explain the situation several times to several different people. I kept getting passed around from one department to another.

People kept debating with me and telling me what the company policies were without listening to me. No one seemed to understand or care that it was important to me that the product be replaced before I left for my trip. I was feeling more and more frustrated, even exasperated.

Finally I found someone who understood what I was trying to say and what I needed. I could literally feel the tension releasing from my body. I thought to myself, "Finally. Someone who understands!" I realized then how important understanding was.

 

Zebra - A father gives his daughter the gift of understanding

From John Gottman's chapter on "The five steps to emotion coaching" p. 69, 70

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I remember the day I first discovered how emotion coaching might work with my own daughter, Moriah. She was two at the time and we were on a cross-country flight home after visiting with relatives. Bored, tired, and cranky, Moriah asked me for Zebra, her favourite stuffed animal and comfort object. Unfortunately, we had absentmindedly packed the well-worn critter in a suitcase that was checked at the baggage counter.

"I’m sorry, honey, but we can’t get Zebra right now. He’s in the big suitcase in another part of the plane," I explained.

"I want Zebra," she whined pitifully.

"I know, sweetheart. But Zebra isn’t here. He’s in the baggage compartment underneath the plane and Daddy can’t get him until we get off the plane. I’m sorry."

"I want Zebra! I want Zebra!" she moaned again. Then she started to cry, twisting in her safety seat and reaching futilely toward a bag on the floor where she’d seen me go for snacks.

"I know you want Zebra," I said, feeling my blood pressure rise.

"But he’s not in that bag. He’s not here and I can’t do anything about it. Look, why don’t we read about Ernie," I said, fumbling for one of her favourite picture books.

"Not Ernie!" She wailed, angry now. "I want Zebra. I want him now!’

By now, I was getting "do something" looks from the passengers, from the airline attendants, from my wife, seated across the aisle. I looked at Moriah’s face, red with anger, and imagined how frustrated she must feel. After all, wasn’t I the guy who could whip up a peanut butter sandwich on demand? Make huge purple dinosaurs appear with the flip of a TV switch? Why was I withholding her favourite toy from her? Didn’t I understand how much she wanted it?

I felt bad. Then it dawned on me: I couldn’t get Zebra, but I could offer the next best thing—a father’s comfort.

"You wish you had Zebra now," I said to her.

"Yeah," she said sadly.

"And you’re angry because we can’t get him for you."

"Yeah."

"You wish you had Zebra right now," I repeated, as she stared at me, looking rather curious, almost surprised.

"Yeah," she muttered. "I want him now,"

"You’re tired now, and smelling Zebra and cuddling with him would feel real good. I wish we had Zebra here so you could hold him. Even better, I wish we could get out of these seats and find a big, soft bed full of all your animals and pillows where we could just lie down."

"Yeah," she agreed.

"We can’t get Zebra because he’s in another part of the airplane," I said "That makes you feel frustrated."

"Yeah," she said with a sigh.

"I’m sorry," I said, watching the tension leave from her face. She rested her head against the back of her safety seat. She continued to complain softly a few more times, but she was growing calmer. Within a few minutes, she was asleep.

Although Moriah was just two years old, she clearly knew what she wanted—her Zebra. Once she began to realize that getting it wasn’t possible, she wasn’t interested in my excuses, arguments, or my diversions. My validation, however, was another matter. Finding out that I understood how she felt seemed to make her feel better. For me, it was a memorable testament to the power of empathy.

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Note: I would just change one thing about this story. I would say that John didn't just give his daughter "the next best thing." I would say he gave his daughter something even better -- her father's understanding. - S. Hein

 
A Father's Reaction to This Page

I just finished reading what you sent me, wow! You read my mind, now i know what I can do with my sons. All they want is my love and understanding.

 
Mejor Agua Fria - Cold water is better

One day in Peru I told someone I was looking for a hotel with hot water for my shower. He said, "Mejor agua fria" - Cold water is better. Then he proceeded to tell me why he thought cold water was better. I felt understood 0 on a scale of 0 to 10.

S. Hein
Chiclayo, Peru
October, 2004

 
Listening to Manuel - Using the 0-10 Scale

Manuel here in Peru has been helping me put some of my ideas into practice. One night Manuel and I stayed at his sister's house. His sister's daughter Claudia didn't want to go to school the next morning. Instead she wanted to stay home and talk to Manuel and I. Manuel lives several hours from Claudia so she doesn't see him often. And Claudia wanted to talk about ways we could help the poor children in Peru. But her mother told her she had to go to school because there were exams.

I felt sad for her and wanted to go to the school during their break time and visit her. Manuel, though, didn't want to go. We argued about it for a while and he was getting more and more frustrated with me because I really wanted to go and he didn't. Then I remembered to ask him how much he felt understood between 0 and 10. He told me 0. Then he asked me how much I understood. I said probably about a 0 also. Obviously, this is why we were arguing. So I asked him to explain again all the reasons why he didn't want to go to the school. As he explained I tried to show him some understanding. I tried to be a good listener. I also took out a notepad and listed his reasons and numbered them.

When he was finished explaining I asked him how much he felt understood again. This time he said 4. Though it wasn't as high as I would like, I explained the basic idea of using the scale and I told him the washing up story. I told him that since he was my close friend I wanted him to feel understood 9 or 10. But that day, I didn't want to spend a lot more time talking since we had a lot of things to do. So I went over each item on my list and we talked about them a little more. By listening to him carefully and then thinking of solutions for each of his concerns we were able to agree on something which we were both pretty satisfied with.

If I had not stopped to ask him how much he felt understood, we could have gotten very frustrated with each other to the point of feeling angry. The 0-10 scale technique helped us stay on friendly terms.

S. Hein
Trujillo, Peru
Dec. 200
4

 

The Bus Is Best

Once while near the Black Sea on the coast of Bulgaria I wanted to take the train to a city called Veliko Tarnovo. I told two people I wanted to take the train and was asking for more information about schedules and routes.

The first person I spoke with started to tell me the bus was a better option because it was more direct and the trains were very slow because of the mountains. But when I explained to him that I often get sick on the curves in the mountains when I am on a bus, he quickly understood and said "Well, in that case the train would be better for you."

Then later I spoke to someone else to check on the name of the city where I would have to change trains. She also told me the bus would be faster, so I explained about the curves and getting sick. She, however, didn't understand. Instead, she just kept insisting that the train was a bad idea. As she walked away her last words were "The best way to get there is by bus, not the train."

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Note

This also made me think more about what the word "best" actually means. I thought that it depends on what is important to you. And what is important to you depends on your feelings.

 

From Head to Toe

Early in my work with emotions, around 1997, I spoke to a mother of a 16 year old. The mother confidently told me she understood her daughter from "head to toe." A few minutes later her daughter came out to join our discussion. I asked the daughter how much she felt understood by her mother from 0 -10. She replied "6". The mother quickly got defensive and verbally attacked her daughter. When the daughter tried to explain why she didn't feel understood, the mother interrupted her and debated with her. An argument started, ending with the mother walking out of the room in frustration... and with the daughter feeling less understood than before!

 

The Washing Up

Note - "Washing up" is what the Australians call "doing the dishes" in the USA.

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Ten year old Anja Lea did not want to wash the dishes. She and her mother were arguing. The mother was threatening her and bribing her. I asked Anja Lea how much she felt understood by her mother about why she did not want to do the washing up. Here is a copy of our dialogue.

"Okay, so Mom wants you to do the dishes and you don't want to. Plus Mom said she isn't going to take you to school until you do them? Is that right so far?"

"Yes."

"Okay, so you are probably feeling forced...?"

"Yes."

"And punished...?"

"Yes."

"And threatened....?"

"Okay. And how much do you feel understood by your mom? From 0-10?"

"Zero!"

I then asked Anja Lea to explain why she didn't want to do the dishes. The more she talked and the more I listened, the more she felt understood. Somewhere along the way, she started washing the dishes without any more arguments or protest! In a few minutes I asked her how much she felt understood by me. She said 8. I asked her what else she wanted me to understand. When she told me, I checked again to see how much she felt understood. This time it was a perfect 10 and the dishes were finished too!

But that is not the end of this story. When she was in the car on the way to school Anja Lea voluntarily apologized to her mother for giving her such a hard time. The mother apologized in return, they both accepted the other's apology and then shared a few tears and a loving hug.

 
You Need to Understand - At The Airport...

When I was trying to leave Cedar City, Utah after a presentation to Southern Utah University in April of 2002 the student who was driving me got a little lost. As a result we arrived a few minutes too late, according to a new law put in place after September 11th. There was actually ample time for me to get on the plane. It was a very small airport. The kind where there is only one plane anywhere in sight. There was no one in line. I just would have had to check in walk out the door, walk to the nearby plane and walk up the steps to enter the plane. It was hardly any more complicated than getting into a car parked on the street in front of your house.

The airline agents, however, refused to check me in. They said "you have to be here thirty minutes before departure" because "those are the rules." They tried to tell me that they needed more time to check people in because of the tighter security regulations. I started to protest. I knew it would not take them long to do the security check even if they hand-checked my whole backpack because there wasn't even much in it. I knew they had time to do it before they were scheduled to depart. The departure time was something like 29 minutes away.

They got very defensive very quickly. One of them said, "You need to understand..." To this I replied with something like "Actually, I believe what I need is your help to get on the plane. That is how I will get back to St. Louis where I have a connecting flight."

They also tried to tell me that they couldn't let anyone else on because they had already given the pilot the list of passengers. I said, "Is there some kind of regulation saying that you can't radio the pilot, or just walk out there, and tell him there is one more passenger?" The agent of the company responded arrogantly, "No. I am just not going to do it."

What I began to suspect is that they didn't think anyone else would be coming out so they decided to turn over the passenger list to the pilot. They may have even done it a minute or two early and that is why they got so defensive. Or they may have done it just as they saw us pulling in the parking lot. It was early in the morning and there were no other flights leaving that little airport near the same time. They might have felt defensive as soon as they saw us pulling up, knowing they had made a wrong assumption that no one else was coming.

We argued for probably twenty minutes while the plane just sat there before it left without me. When I came back out for a later flight, I was curious to see how long all these "new security measures" would actually take.

I paid very close attention and I didn't see any new security measures. In fact, they didn't even look inside my backpack. They just ran it through the x-ray machine while I walked through the metal detector, just the same as airports have been doing for years. It took less than 60 seconds. So I never did understand what they said I "needed" to understand.

What became very clear to me though was that the people there had an unmet need to feel in control. Or as some would say, they were "on a power trip." They were petty authority figures trying to feel powerful by arrogantly, and basically arbitrarily, pushing their weight around on someone less powerful than themselves. Sometimes I wonder if people like this actually enjoy having rules they can enforce. It gives them justification for being arrogant, controlling and insensitive.

Since then I have become very sensitive to the expressions "You need to understand.." or "You have to understand.." When people say this they are usually feeling defensive. They are not trying to understand you. They are not interested in you. They are trying to defend themselves and get you to be quiet and stop bothering them. If you have more patience and restraint than I have, maybe you can let them talk till they have satisfied themselves. Then maybe you can show them that you "understand." Then they will feel understood and you might have a slightly better chance of getting some help from them.

I think of the principle "Seek first to understand, then to be understood." It is sad that many people in power rarely seem to apply this.

S. Hein

 
Understanding, Depression and Suicide

In our experience with youth suicide prevention one thing all depressed and suicidal adolescents have in common is a very large unmet need for understanding.

We believe if there were more people skilled in understanding, listening and validation there would be far fewer youth suicides.

 
Understanding Myself

I have felt misunderstood pretty much all of my life. This is something I only realized a few years ago. I became aware that I spent a lot of time trying to get people to understand me. Later I concluded I can't really make others understand me so it is more important that I understand myself. This reminds me of the expression, "you have to love yourself before you can love someone else." Erich Fromm also said something like "To love yourself you must love everyone." (See my page on love)

I think you might also have to understand yourself to understand others. Maybe understanding others helps. I suppose it is a two way street and neither one really comes first.

 
Misc - It is painful when we don't understand. We all feel some pain when things don't make sense. For example when we see a sign that says "Open 24 hours," but the shop is closed.

Some people will accept relatively simple explanations, even if they are wrong or incomplete. Others, though, have a need for deeper understanding. When they are given answers which don't satisfy their need, perhaps answers such as "because I said so" or "because it is the law," they feel some pain or frustration. But when their need for understanding is met, they feel satisfied and content.

 

 

 

 

xtr

(more ofthe chat with sarah