WHEN PEOPLE DON'T UNDERSTAND, LISTEN BETTER
When people don’t understand you, it’s because you don’t understand them. If you had really known what they were saying, your statements would have responded to theirs (even if you disagreed) and would have made sense to them. Maybe you started making assumptions about what they were thinking or feeling and responded to that instead of what they were saying. Maybe what they said didn’t make sense to you, so you just said what you wanted to say without trying to understand them first. Maybe something else was going on. Whatever was going on, when people didn’t understand you, it’s because you weren’t listening.
Once you get into a misunderstanding with someone, it’s difficult to get out of it. You find yourself on uncertain ground. You don’t know where you got off solid ground. You could strike off in another direction to see if understanding is close. Most likely you will have to turn around and go back, possibly through a whole series of misunderstandings, until you get to the place where you understood each other. Maybe that was back where you said, “Hello, my name is . . .”
Besides being tedious and time-consuming, misunder-standings can be very counterproductive as well. You may have already started building a bond with someone, a foundation for working together, and have to give it up because you find out they weren’t really agreeing with you. They just didn’t understand you. Instead of having agreed on the method and being ready to get to work, you might be back discussing the possible methods. Or, instead of being ready to discuss the possible methods, you might be back determining whether they really want to do this.
It’s worse than just being at an earlier stage than you thought, though. The whole process has been negatively impacted, because it will seem to the other person that you have already made up your mind that you want to do this and how you want to do it. They no longer believe that you have an open mind and are willing to listen to their point of view.
It doesn’t seem to matter, either, how well you know the other person or if you have worked together before. One of the worst misunderstandings I was ever involved in was with someone I really liked, whom I thought I understood very well, and whom I had worked with very closely and very successfully in the past. I didn’t even ask him what he thought about my goals and my plan for accomplishing them. I was sure I knew what he thought. I didn’t tell him what I wanted from him. I was sure he knew what I wanted. It was quite a surprise to me when he cancelled the whole project.
The easiest way for someone to understand what you are telling them is for you to start from whatever understanding you have with them already and not lose them or get lost along the way. Assume nothing. They might not know who you are even if you know who they are. Even if they work with you every day, they absolutely don’t know what’s on your mind or why you’re interested in it. They might not know even if “everybody knows” -- they might not have read your e-mail or heard what’s been going on at the water cooler. They surely haven’t been thinking about it all day like you have. They’re probably in the middle of something else entirely.
If you really want to be understood, the first thing you have to do is find a time and setting when both you and the other person can pay attention to each other. Maybe you can just walk over to their work area. But if their work area is in front of a customer, their attention rightfully belongs on the customer. They can’t give it to you. Even if they’re not on the front lines, they might have a deadline or a meeting or appointment to go to. You have to tell them how much time you think you need to talk to them and ask them if they can give it to you. Then you have to listen to the answer and be willing to change your plans accordingly.
Once you have the right time and setting, you need to say where you are starting from (the things you and the other person both already know). When you do this, you need to listen very carefully to the other person. They might not know what you think they know. They might have forgotten. It could be that they hadn’t said anything before, but they actually wanted to go over that with you because they really didn’t agree or had since thought of something that changed their opinion.
When you have established a starting point that you agree on, you need to take them with you to the next logical step, explaining and listening very carefully to whether they understand and agree that this is the best choice. And you have to be willing to listen if they disagree. If you don’t listen to and answer their concerns as they come up, they will not be able to get past that point. You might rave on, but they will be thinking about that point that was not complete for them. At least, you have to agree to disagree or make that point a condition of agreement.
It is also very important for you to be willing to change your mind based on what the other person says. “You’re not listening” is the same as something else I was once told: “I got the feeling that it didn’t matter what I said, you were so set on your plan that nothing I said could change your mind in the least way.” Of course, the other really good reason why you have to be willing to change your mind based on what the other person says is that they really might have a better idea.
It may seem more efficient to just get to the point, to tell people your conclusion. But that’s not the way you got there. Even if you didn’t consciously think the thing through, step by step, something happened in your head that took the disconnected pieces of information you had, identified the problems, chose a goal, and used everything you’ve ever learned and everything you’ve ever experienced to come up with the best idea. Probably it wasn’t as linear as step by step. Maybe different possibilities swirled around in your head and were rejected because of various flaws before this one coalesced. So, if you let the other person go through the same process and they come to the same conclusion, you won’t have to explain anything. It just might take a while. Or, you can show them the path you took that got you to your goal so they don’t have to go down every trail, like you did, to see if it’s the right one.
Besides, if you tell someone your conclusion first and they like it, they might agree without even thinking about it. Then you won’t get the benefit of their judgment, ideas, or suggestions. That might turn out to be a mistake. And, if you tell someone your conclusion first and they don’t like it – because it costs money or requires them to change or do something else unpleasant, you will have a difficult time convincing them that it is something they should do. In fact, they will probably fight you on every point you try to make, because they know agreeing to any part of it will help take them where they don’t want to go. If you take them, step by step, from where they are to the same conclusion, they will have already examined the other possibilities and the consequences of not acting. It will seem like the best alternative.
Sometimes when people don’t understand you, it’s your motives they don’t understand and not what you’re trying to do. Then, it really helps to be able to explain every step that got you from where you were to where you are. It makes you think about whether each step is logical and the best choice. It shows the other person that, too. Of course, there might be times when you, like me, have to abandon a course of action, because this kind of scrutiny reveals that there really is a hidden agenda. Sometimes, we say that people don’t understand us when, in fact, they understand us very well. We just haven’t admitted our real motives to ourselves.
Every time I started at the beginning and explained myself in logical steps, going from one idea to an associated one and then on to the next one, people have understood me. In fact, they could often see where I was going and agreed with me before I even told them my conclusion.
But when I told people my conclusion first, they often misunderstood me. In fact, there have been times when people thought I was agreeing with them, when, as far as I could tell, they were saying the exact opposite of what I was saying. That is, if I understood them, because they certainly didn’t understand me.
The best way to be understood is to explain well and listen even better.