“What’s so funny ‘bout peace, love and understanding.” – Elvis Costello
We’ve all been there. You spend ten minutes talking to someone and then they say something that makes you realize they totally misunderstood you! It can cause anger, pain, loss of opportunity, hurt feelings and much, much more.
In conversations, here are three important aspects of understanding to consider:
- Motivation: (The Desire to Understand) When I was in grade school, I was bored out of my mind most of the time and found it quite difficult to muster enthusiasm and apply myself to understanding the lecturing of my teachers. Rather than listening intently, I talked to my neighbor, pondered the design and structure of the overhead lights and became a world class doodler; anything but paying attention to what was going on up front of the class! Conversely as a college student, I had a definite goal in mind: getting a good job. This was the motivation I needed to understand what my instructors were trying to convey.
- Motive: (The Why behind the What) Whenever words get spoken, they almost always begin life in the conscious mind as a feeling or an idea. With more complex ideas, expectations and motives are applied before they are uttered. It’s not always easy to detect all of those things from what someone says, but it is vitally important to discern these things if we desire to truly understand. Our awareness of the feelings, motives and expectations behind spoken words are in direct proportion to our understanding the message. Unless we possess that shared meaning of what the original idea or feeling was, then we have not really understood. For any pertinent communication, there are reasons behind the words and those reasons need to be surfaced and confirmed for understanding to be achieved.
- Mood: (Sensing Emotions that Accompany Words) Unless a person is a psychopath, they are almost always feeling something, particularly when they speak. Learning to pick up on the emotions that others are feeling from the words they choose, the tone of voice, the gestures and body language takes some practice. Unfortunately, some people tend to really hide their emotions while still others are not even aware of their own emotional states most of the time. Conversely, they may be communicating a particular emotional state without even being aware that they are experiencing it.
What to Do? Some ideas:
A. Develop the habit of discerning people’s emotional states as they speak. In your own mind, think to yourself: this person seems sad, or happy or eager or frightened. How do their emotional states impact what they’re saying? Here’s a good list of emotional states: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Emotion. Get to know them, rehearse what each might look like.
B. Ask and ye shall receive. If you don’t understand or you’re having trouble discerning someone’s feelings, motives or expectations, why not ask a question that will cause them reveal what that is? Frame the question carefully and with utmost courtesy otherwise you may find curiosity turning into suspicion or grief into anger. Think about the formation of the words as a process and ask questions that fill in the missing component of the process.
C. A little reassurance goes a long way. It is a universal truth that everyone wants to be understood. When you respond to what they’ve said in such a way that it’s obvious you know how they feel and what they’re motives are you close the circuit on understanding. This is very empowering in that it helps the person on their way to trusting that you have understood them and they can move on in the conversation.
Understanding can be a beautiful thing; in business, in relationships, in community. There’s nothing funny about it!
Don F Perkins