What Does It Take For Me To Understand You?

Let’s explore understanding. Let’s make this specific and explore what it takes for me to understand you.

The default: I understand you conceptually and instrumentally

It occurs to me that the default way of understanding is cognitive-conceptual-detached. Put more plainly, it is head stuff.  This is the kind of understanding that I am after when I ask, “Why did you do that?” This is the kind of understanding that leaves me feeling safe-satisfied when I have placed you into an existing category. A great example of this is Myers-Briggs typologies. This is the kind of understanding that shows up when I stand facing you, observing you. You and I are distant standing in different places. It is akin to the understanding that the scientist generates in the laboratory: the observer and the observed.

Having gone about understanding you in this manner, in what sense have I understood you?  Perhaps, a more insightful-pentrating question is this one, have I understood you at all? I assert that I have not understood you.  Now this would not be an issue (in the workability of my life, your life, our relationship) if I got (and you got) that this default mode of understanding you, leaves me not understanding you.  Yet, in life as lived, it does show up as an issue because I do NOT get that I can never understand you if I use this default mode of understanding you.

At best I understand you instrumentally.  Which is to say that I understand you like understanding a car – good enough to drive it. Understanding you instrumentally allows me to get along with you. And make use of you.

What does it take for me to really understand you?

Does understanding you require me to ‘walk in your shoes’? No, because I am not you and you are not me. Even if I walk in your shoes it is highly unlikely that that the world will show up for me as it shows up for you, and that I will experience that which you experience.

I say that it takes a certain kind of context for me to understand you.  What kind of context?  A context where you feel safe opening up and sharing yourself with me.  How do I generate that context? By showing up and relating-listening to you as a fellow human being who is whole-complete-perfect. It occurs to me that Carl Rogers called this ‘unconditional positive regard‘.  Whilst this is necessary, it is not enough.  Generous listening, deep curiosity, sufficient time, and patience are also required.

What kind of questions open up a space for me to understand you?  

It occurs to me that the following questions are pointers towards the right kind of questions:

  • How does this person-event-situation-world show up for you?  And how would you like it to show up for you?
  • How do you show up for yourself? And how would you like to show up for yourself?
  • What exactly is your experience (bodily sensations, moods, feelings, thoughts …..) of your life, your living? And what would you like your experience to be?
  • What kind of a future are you living into? How does the future show up for you?
  • What kind of future would you like to be living into?  What will it take for you to generate this future?
  • What are your dreams? What would you take on if money was no object, if you had absolute confidence in yourself?  Who would travel this path, take on this challenge with you?
  • What are you struggling with right now? How are you experiencing this struggle? Who is helping you face these struggles?
  • Which events-activities-persons in your life leave you most satisfied-fulfilled?
  • What message would you like your living to speak?
  • What legacy would you like to leave? For who?
  • What/who are you grateful for?

And finally

In being present to these questions, I get, vividly-experientially, that I do NOT understand you.  Being thus present, not deluded, I can choose to walk the path of genuine understanding or not.

So what does it take for me to understand you?  It takes genuine caring. It takes genuine-deep curiosity. It takes time and it takes effort. It takes giving me the notion that I already understand you. It takes giving me the notion that you are a static object – once understood, always understood. It takes a certain kind of generosity of being.

Why should I make the effort to generate this kind of understanding?  Connection. The access to genuine connection to you, is through this latter type of understanding.

Author: Maz Iqbal

Experienced management consultant working at the intersection of strategy, customer, and technology. Combine a tendency to think strategically with a penchant for getting my hands dirty at the coalface of implementation.

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