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Understanding in Communication:
Assigning Accurate Meaning to What We Hear
© 2014, Joel Durkovic, M.A., RCC, RMFT
Three years ago, I wrote an article for this newsletter that identified two obvious and necessary components of healthy communication between two people: 1) making oneself understood and 2) understanding the other. In that article, I explored the art of making oneself understood, and I reflected on some principles of healthy assertiveness.
But what about the other half of communication -- that pesky and complicated work of understanding others accurately? It may be that you consider yourself a pretty good listener. As you probably well experience, understanding someone accurately involves much more than hearing words precisely. Let’s begin with some broad concepts about the work of understanding in general, and then move to more practical tools about understanding others better in our communication, whether that is with a loved one, a colleague, or even a stranger.
Before we start, just in case you’ve forgotten how to stick up for yourself (and since we’re now venturing into the realm of empathy), you might want to review the article I wrote in 2011, called Being Understood: The Scoop on Assertiveness
It may be one of the most basic human needs to discover meaning in things. To find purpose for our lives in general is certainly a common meaning-making goal. We ask ourselves why we are here, what purpose we serve, and how we can make a significant contribution in our relatively short lifespan. In a much more mundane way, however, we take part in meaning-making every day through the attempts to gain accurate understanding of the conversations or situations in which we participate. When we “read between the lines” of a conversation, we intuitively sense that there is more meaning attached than mere words convey. So, how can we grow in our work of accurate understanding?
At a very primary level, we’ve all been given maps of how to make meaning through the context of our most foundational relationships: our own families. Undoubtedly, our basic picture for understanding the world, for better or for worse, was formed by the values that were modelled and acted out each day through the families into which we were born. It makes sense, then, that the way we understand or make meaning of anything at all is by perceiving it through the lens of our worldview, which in large part is formed initially through the context of these family relationships. As we grow up and become more independent, most of us do the hard work of deciding which aspects of that lens we’d like to keep and which are best thrown out. Suffice to say, the family system and culture that we grow up within contributes a great deal to how we understand things.
We are, all of us, truly multifaceted creatures with compelling stories and histories. Like it or not, when we engage in even the most basic communication with another person, we have to contend with the fact that we will always hear things through a certain bias. Thus, it definitely pays to know something about how we, as listeners, may filter meaning as we hear others express their words. Furthermore, since people also express their words and meaning through those same biased filters, as listeners, we do well to remain (or become) curious about the person behind the words.
Whole theoretical and philosophical systems have been developed to address the theme of understanding ourselves and others. With this short article, I merely want to highlight that, if we truly want to improve our understanding of someone for whom we care, we will need to pay attention to various layers. We will first need to genuinely step into the shoes of another through empathy, but we will also need to be open to the fact that even our genuine hard work of empathy is subject to our own biases. Simply said, we will certainly get closer to understanding others accurately when we exercise humility in the process.
But how do we go about working at this difficult task of more accurately understanding someone we love? What follows are just a few concepts with some connected practical tools. Hopefully, these will stir your own creativity:
Remember that every piece of communication you hear from someone else is attached to a person with a story. While we inherently know that to understand people well, we have to get behind their words and into their stories, somehow we have a tendency in our everyday communication to forget this obvious truth. To understand a person well, you actually have to love him -- that is, love him in the sense of deciding or choosing to see the truth of his worth as a human being. We might speak of this kind of love as a choice rather than a feeling. (Not so curiously, when we choose to love people this way, we often find ourselves feeling genuine fondness as a very nice by-product!). This kind of love shows itself in the self-discipline displayed when we consider and hold that there may be layers of meaning to someone’s words. One simple and practical self-check on this theme is to ask yourself honestly, “Am I genuinely curious about this person’s story?”
Take steps to pay attention to your own psychological growth. It is a clear truth that a mature person who knows herself thoroughly and who carries a well-defined “sense of self” will more accurately attach the correct understanding to a given situation than someone who is insecure and reactive. An author I like, Henri Nouwen, puts this well when he conveys that it is through our solitude that we have anything to offer or receive from community. In other words, when we are comfortable in our own skin and deeply experience our own belovedness, we are more able to connect to the belovedness of another. Being comfortable in our own skin helps us stay more objective when listening to others, helps us take things less personally, and helps us extend ourselves more fully to empathize with another’s meaning in communication.
Are you trying to understand an “out-loud processor” or an “internal processor”? It really pays to know something about the personality of the person with whom you are trying to develop understanding. Many of us are verbal processors, or what I’m calling “out-loud processors”. Within our safe relationships, we tend to try things on verbally to identify how we actually feel about situations. Instead of waiting until we have figured out how we feel before we speak, we speak in order to figure out how and what we feel.
Contrast this to someone who processes internally, thinks over things methodically, reflects silently, and finally speaks (if he speaks at all!) once he is somewhat organized in his brain and has an idea of what he feels.
People may fall anywhere on the continuum here, so this is not an either/or thing, but it can be helpful to have a general sense of which way a person leans in this regard. For example, one of my good friends, who himself is more of an internal processor, told me that he learned a trick when trying to understand his verbal-processing wife. He will ask her, “How much of what you said over the last 10 minutes do you still really feel?” He has learned that he can have a tendency to take everything she says as though it’s her final position, when in fact, it very rarely is!
In the same way, those trying to understand internal processors do better when they recognize that there is often much more behind the scenes than what is shared in a few words.
If you are experimenting with this, you will make much better progress if you do not criticize the other’s mode of processing. There isn’t a right or wrong mode, and the more quickly we accept the way others process, the sooner we can get on to building tools for understanding the heart of our partner well.
Remember that people often do not say exactly what they mean. Play the detective… We all have the experience of being projected upon by others. Projection is the complicated stuff we experience from someone when we touch on a raw nerve of unresolved baggage. But projection can also be as simple as the dynamics we experience when we find ourselves super impatient or agitated, only to realize that we are just hungry or tired. When we snap at our child over some innocuous question, we might ask ourselves where all that extra energy is coming from. This extra energy is the stuff of projection.
In the story of The Wizard of Oz, Toto gives Dorothy a big hint when he tugs at the curtain and reveals that the fiery and scary face of the Wizard isn’t really what it appears to be. Dorothy notes that things don’t really add up, and it gives her courage to face the mask when she realizes that a scared little man is behind the curtain. Similarly, if we are interested in gaining an accurate understanding of someone, we sometimes need to recognize projection for what it is. Rather than react to masks, we do well to know within ourselves that there is often a fearful or threatened someone hiding behind a curtain (or maybe even just a tired or hungry someone). Let your detective instincts move toward what is hidden versus the obvious, but be careful that you don’t tear down the curtain with too much vigour or criticism. Our masks often provide a well-developed armour to protect our fragile selves, so they need to be approached creatively and respectfully.
In summary, to understand others well, we, as hearers, need a lifelong commitment to our own development and maturity. We must choose to love others as persons with stories, noting their unique style of communication, and exercising the discipline to uncover the heart of the meaning in the words we hear. Happy listening!