To say understanding is misunderstood takes irony to new heights. Yet, in the end, the statement holds water. In our own ways, we all seek understanding. What is there about understanding which is so hard to understand?
The first two definitions of understanding are not terrifically hard to understand: A mental grasp, the ability to comprehend and the power to make experience apply to life. Overall, we all understand this level of understanding. We seek it in every question. It causes us to try things merely to wrap our brains around sensations, feelings and events. We want to get it.
We actively seek the third definition of understanding: a friendly or harmonious relationship, agreement of opinion or feelings, an informal, yet binding, mutual agreement. This type of understanding is reached, sometimes effortlessly…sometimes as a lifelong pursuit or everyday struggle. We seek it.
The fourth definition is straightforward: explanation, interpretation. It goes hand-in-hand with the first three. This understanding is the Why? we seek when our grasp slips or the harmony is disturbed. It brings back into balance the known and the unknown by revealing the unknown in terms of the known.
The last definition of understanding is the one we miss entirely with far more frequency than we get right: sympathy. Before you whip out your tried and true idea of sympathy, inserting crying shoulders and tissues, look very closely:
3. a: the act or capacity of entering into or sharing the feelings or interests of another”
How many of the following have you heard in a moment of pain or despair or anger?
- I know exactly what you’re feeling.
- I understand what you are going through.
- If anyone understands it, it’s me.
- I have been right where you are.
- I’ve walked a mile in your shoes.
Yes, these types of statements are ubiquitous. Why? We want to feel like we understand (see first definition) what others feel and experience (see third definition). We liken what we recognize in their situations to our own experiences to create a point of reference (see fourth definition).
What is missing from all of those statements is the last definition. None of these statements is understanding. Take off the polite and politically correct frame. Let’s look at the bigger picture to understand the difference between what we accept as understanding and what we are offered.
When was the last time you crawled underneath a vehicle? Looking at the engine from the bottom, you can see many things which would have eluded you from the under the hood view. From here, there are no handy, color-coded, multi-language labels. You either know or not.
One thing is for certain: Unless you know from this angle, you probably do not understand.
Emotions and pain are the engine. The view from under the hood is what someone allows you to see. It is labeled with useful signs and warning lights, like:
- Insert hug here.
- Don’t go there.
- I’m begging with my actions.
This is the user-friendly side of the engine. It can hide a multitude of complications. When we make the assumption If everything looks copacetic on the surface, everything is in working order on the bottom (and in the middle), we are still just assuming.
The fallacy is:
Claiming we understand what someone else feels.
Feelings, especially hurt feelings, are on a scale. Pain, both physical and emotional, has no universal standard scale. What is a 10 for you, may be a 4 for someone else.
For example, to many people a 10 on the pain scale is a broken bone. In my case, a 10 is a 13-inch, abdominal incision (Cesarean section) with a soldering iron and no anesthesia. Having had both, I do know one is a 4 and the other a 10.
However, to a live-ammunition amputee, my 10 is likely a 4. In short, your experience at the top of the scale is not the finite upper boundary. It is merely as high as you have climbed.
Even when facing similar situations, perspective and tolerance both change how we cope with feelings and events individually. Put the adrenaline junkie and the pteromerhanophobe on the same helicopter (with no doors) at 5,000 feet to prove this example.
When we feel a certain way, we are showing our return-on-investment (ROI) for our emotional capital. All of us expect our engines to perform in different ways. When they begin to malfunction, we are seeking others who have had similar engine troubles. We compare performance notes (fourth definition). We seek understanding for ourselves (first definition) as well as from others (fifth definition).
Before committing the egregious assumption of claiming to know what it is like, exercise prudence:
- Ask what it feels like using a comparative description.
- Admit you have never stood there.
- Absorb the scale from another perspective.
You have the ability to understand, if not the verbatim construct of the pain, at least of its comparative effect. To make the assumption you understand without the input of the one you claim to understand, you are driving the engine without oil. The already dry or raw feelings are likely not prepared to tow the weight of your payload on top of its own.
In an attempt at harmonious agreement, be careful not to diminish the value of the feelings seeking sympathy. Someone needs your understanding.
Can you think of questions you can use to promote better understanding of others’ feelings? Have you ever used a comparative example to be better understood? How understanding are you?
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(c) Ann Marie Dwyer 2012
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Author’s Note: Various foundations for this topic have been covered in other posts on M3 (linked above) and remotely. If you would like a detailed, real life example of how understanding can be misunderstood, please visit the primary foundation for this post. If you would like more information about this topic, please email. Anonymity respected.
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