Communication skills

Effective Communication: Facing the frustration of “you don’t understand!”

- May 5, 2007 3 MIN READ

In this scenario, sometimes the other person doesn’t seem to care. You find yourself crying out (aloud or inside) “…but you don’t understand!” If you find yourself in this situation often, it could be pathological.

You know you’ve got a case of the you-don’t-understands when:

  • You feel frustrated that others are repeatedly missing the point;
  • You feel defensive about your point of view;
  • You get stuck in a conversation with two opposing positions and neither you or the other person will budge;
  • You see yourself as “right” and the other as “wrong”;
  • You approach conflict from a “win-lose” rather than a “win-win” perspective.

It’s terribly frustrating, isn’t it? I can get so attached to the idea that this other person has to understand me…but when I take a step back, I can’t help but wonder why? Why is it so important that I get them to see the world through my eyes?

I think the reason is we all want to be acknowledged. We want our voice to be heard, and our experiences validated. We need to feel respected and valued and supported as we communicate and connect with people in meaningful ways.

However, insisting we be understood by others rarely makes it happen, nor does it tend to endear us to those we would have listen.

Perhaps the trick is shifting our attention to understanding rather than being understood. Clearly this is not an original idea, I recall Francis of Assisi had something to say on the matter.

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Putting this noble concept into action is guaranteed to shake things up. As we shift our focus from our precious position or the content of the “debate”, and hone in on the way we’re communicating with the other person, we take our awareness to the relationship.

Sometimes bringing the discussion into the present moment can help. For example: “It seems like we just keep going back and forth with this. I’m feeling really stuck. How does talking like this feel for you?”

Having brought attention onto the process and off the content, you are better able to explore new territory and find out what’s going on for the other person. At the very least you might be able to identify one piece of common ground – your mutual dissatisfaction with the way the conversation had been unfolding. You’re probably on the same side there.

When we turn our attention to understanding the other (person, client, partner, colleague) we send an important message: what matters to you is important to me. Seeing the world through their eyes also gives us valuable information about what they hear and how they make meaning.

By asking questions and listening, we learn about others’ values, their personal filters, what makes them tick, their personality and temperament (equally applicable to individuals and organisations). Reflecting back to the other what we hear them saying, demonstrates empathy and caring. It models effective communication behaviour to them at the same time.

How are you communicating with the people who matter to you? Are you all caught up in being understood, or are you seeking to understand? If, like me, you often stuck in the former, here’s a challenge you might like to take up.

Next time you feel like someone is not listening or not understanding your very important point, ask them: “what comes up for you when I talk about this?” If you can refrain from defending, justifying or arguing your position while you probe further and further into theirs, you might learn something and transform the way you communicate with that person forever. Who knows – you might even end up on the same side.