“What we have here is failure to communicate!”
The famous movie line from Cool Hand Luke was spoken facetiously by the Captain, a prison warden, to Luke, the young prisoner played by Paul Newman. Perhaps one of the reasons it has stayed so deeply ingrained in our cultural lore is because the failure to communicate is at the core of more unhappiness and hurt in relationships than any other factor.
It is surely one of life’s great ironies that the people closest to us have the power to hurt us more than anyone else. Think about the times in your own family when you were feeling at odds with a spouse, a parent, a child, or a sibling. I’m not talking about extremely pathologic scenarios (abuse, mental illness, etc.) but run-of-the-mill, everyday family dynamics. I’ll bet if you’re honest with yourself, at the heart of the problem was someone — maybe everyone — feeling misunderstood. Seeking to be understood can so quickly deteriorate into self-justification and blame. I’m sorry to say I’ve been on both the giving and receiving end of that game at times in my life, and it’s not a game anyone wins.
So what can we do with our failures to communicate?
It’s tempting to throw up our hands and just consider the differences irreconcilable, harboring the poison of hurt and resentment. I don’t buy into the tendency some of my female friends have to say, “Men are from Mars” and therefore somehow incapable of being understood or understanding us. Nor do I agree with men when they shake their heads and act like we women are too different to ever understand. Adults and their teenaged or adult children are also quick to dismiss each other as beyond hope for understanding. I’m convinced we are all driven by basic human needs that cross all divides of gender, age, or even nationality. But what are those needs and how can they reunite us?
What are the needs that connect us?
I’m reading Brené Brown’s book Daring Greatly, about the critical role of vulnerability in our relationships and the importance of rethinking what it means to be understood. The need to be understood is even stronger than the need to be right, and I find that fascinating. Why? Could getting to the heart of this illuminate the motives behind some of our relationship issues? Perhaps more insight will even allow us to have more compassion for ourselves and for those we love. Couldn’t that, then, lead to our finding strategies for achieving more mutual understanding?
As Brené Brown convincingly argues in her earlier book Gifts of Imperfection, we are all imperfect, and our imperfections are gifts when we embrace them and allow ourselves to be more compassionate towards others in their own imperfection. As you read these underlying reasons for our craving to be understood, you may feel some don’t apply to you, but my guess is we’re all somewhere on a continuum for each one.
- We all have a deep-seated longing for love and approval.
- Other people’s opinions matter to us more than we care to admit, and we are affected, in varying degrees, by the need to meet the expectations of others. This can become a huge burden.
- We are hard-wired for connection. The fear of disconnection drives us to desperately seek to be understood.
8 steps to get past feeling misunderstood and move towards mutual understanding
So let’s take a stab at turning this into a communication strategy for getting past misunderstanding. I’ve learned some of these the hard way (by not doing them and suffering the consequences) and I’ve pulled some of them out of my reading and thinking.
- Acknowledge your vulnerability and embrace it. Knowing it’s important to feel understood is just accepting a basic human truth and helps explain why you might be experiencing such intense emotions over a misunderstanding.
- When you feel misunderstood, take a deep breath before responding. It is oh, so tempting to either go into defensive mode or, worse, to go on the attack and justify it by your perceived hurt at the other person’s inability to understand you. Give yourself time to cool off. Don’t ask me how I know that.
- Make sure you heard what you think you heard (or read). I have found myself especially vulnerable to emails that seem to be critical or harsh because they are not accompanied by facial expressions or voice tones. I’ve fired off a response to such a missive when I should have picked up the phone and asked the other person to explain what he/she meant. In fact, I’d go so far as to say it’s best to avoid using email to convey anything other than information or upbeat messages.
- Try this simple approach if you’re with someone in person who has said something that felt hurtful or demeaning. Calmly say, “I really want to understand how you feel, but what you just said seemed really harsh, and it sounded like you were saying _______________. Is that what you meant?” This often elicits from the other person a totally shocked response such as “Oh my gosh no, that’s not what I meant at all!” And then they have a chance to explain.
- Don’t expect anyone to be able to read your mind, even if they’ve lived with you for a long time. It’s neither realistic nor fair, and when you drop it from your expectations, you’ve suddenly opened up a whole host of other choices for exploring the misunderstanding.
- Remember the other person has the same underlying needs you do. Perhaps their apparent harshness or antagonism is fueled by their own vulnerabilities and fear of disconnection. A frightened animal can be dangerous, and in this regard, we human animals have not evolved too far.
- Read Brené Brown’s book Daring Greatly. I wish I’d had the benefit of its knowledge and wisdom much earlier in my life. It can help with every kind of relationship from inside families to those at work, school, or church. Its message is equally important for men as for women. It is based on thousands of interviews and extensive research, yet it is highly readable and compelling.
- If you’re dealing with a long-standing pattern of misunderstanding and hurt feelings with someone important in your life, the bad habits and cycles of hurt, defensiveness, and aggression won’t disappear overnight. There are so many hidden emotional triggers that can derail your best intentions. Start with baby steps and consider whether professional counseling might help.
Yes, it’s risky
This is all so much easier to say than to do, and when we start responding in a way unfamiliar to those around us, they could suspect our motives. We run the risk of finding out someone is not going to back down or make the effort to understand us, or say what we want to hear. But as Brown’s book title conveys, we can achieve great strides towards widening the circle of love and understanding in our lives by daring greatly—daring to be vulnerable with those we love and daring to reach out to them and accept them too, imperfections and all.
I believe with all my heart that’s a risk worth taking. Don’t you?
I’d love to hear your thoughts below or on my Facebook Page.