Sunday, 1 April 2012

Q10: How can I understand someone, if they don’t tell me what’s going on?

We've recently been exploring how we can see another person's perspective. But as one reader wrote to remind me, this can be difficult when - as she put it - "People often think that their thoughts / feelings are obvious and do not communicate them."

Partial communication
It's curious how often we expect ourselves (or others) to be telepathic when we're talking. We 'miss bits out'. For example, we may forget to:
  • Set the context - so that people are clear what we're talking about.
  • Say how the situation affects us - so that people know where we're coming from
  • Make a clear suggestion - so that people can follow the next steps, in practice 
Being misunderstood...
If you feel that you aren't understood properly, one reason may be that you are communicating "partially". (At times, most of us do.) You might have thought it unnecessary to give a fuller picture; maybe you were busy and being efficient; perhaps you just felt tongue-tied. Yet unless other people are particularly on the ball, if we communicate partially, we may not get the responses we like or need. 

"I'm not telepathic!"
Our reader's question here, though, is what it's like when other people communicate only partially towards us; and so make it hard for us to read and understand them.  

Sometimes we really do need to understand another person. It can be vital for us professionally or personally. Knowing another person's position or perspective is a basic ingredient of smooth communication. In order for a conversation to move forward, we need to know the effect of our words - how what we've just said has landed. If we can't touch base with someone else's standpoint, we face a reality gap.

In the reality gap...
The reality gap causes problems when we don't know - or we can't discover - each other's point of view. This places us in a very awkward position. It's also when communication may deteriorate. When we can't tell how someone is going react (or when we're anxious about their response) many of us over-compensate. For example, we might:
  • Become over-anxious, insecure or unconfident 
  • Appear brusque, heavy-handed, repetitive or insistent
  • Sound super-cool, extra charming, or over-confident
  • Turn 'too nice' - not addressing our own needs 
  • Say nothing at all!

So what can we do? 

Step 1: Explain where you are coming from
If we're struggling to 'get' another person, the first step is to let them know where we are coming from ourselves. When we tell people openly, they relax and trust us more easily. If we don't, they instinctively imagine what our motives may be - and quite possibly one's we don't have! 

So we can briefly let someone know what our own motivations, intentions, needs or values are. 

I use positive, solution-orientated language to do this:

Solution-orientated communication

a) "I'm keen to know that I'm being clear, so...." 
    "I'd find it helpful to hear what you think of this, so...."

b) "It's important to me you're included in this decision, so...."

c) "I'd like to take account of everyone's schedule here, so...."

If we express the same well-meaning points with a problem-orientation, we stand a chance of annoying someone, because we're accidentally implying problems which may not exist: 
Problem-orientated communication  
a) "I hope I haven't confused you, so..."                        [May imply: you're confused, a bit dim]

b) "I'm don't want you to feel ignored, so..."                   [May imply: you have been ignored]

c) "I'm trying to avoid an argument, so..."                      [May imply: an argument is brewing; 
                                                                                                 or, you're likely to cause one!]

Step 2: Ask directly
When you are clear, positive and solution-orientated about your own perspective, it becomes much easier to ask another person directly what's going on for them. That way, you don't need to be telepathic - they have the best chance to say how they think and feel. For example:

"I'd find it helpful to hear what you think of this, so can you give me your feedback?"

"It's important to me that you're included in this decision, so how would it be for you 
if we [do X, Y or Z]?"

Step 3: Leave an Open Door
Yet even now, you may not feel comfortable to ask for their responses. So remember to leave an Open Door. That is, really give them a chance to work out what they think or feel, and to come back to you if they want.

Being articulate when others aren't
Sometimes, we miss the chance to hear what's going on for someone. Surprisingly, this can happen when we're more articulate than they are (at that moment in time). Their reply may still be forming inside them. They may not have it themselves yet, and they couldn't let us know, even if they wanted to. If we ask someone to tell us what they feel or think before they are ready, then that person may easily take it as pressure, or that they are failing in some way. 

You'll need to find your own ways to leave an Open Door. It's about making sure the other person really does have a spacious, respectful space. It might sound something like:

"I wonder what do you make of all that?"

"Take your time to think it over, if you want."

"Is [X, Y, Z] okay with you - given what's on your plate just now?"

Visit the person 'on their mountain'
If you take these three steps, you will naturally end up visiting the other person, 'on their mountain'. You open the door to their world, their perspective. (For the two mountains, check out our Listening video).

Once you are 'on their mountain', you'll need a whole new range of skills and approaches to help you to discover and explore their perspective - ways which feel safe and enjoyable for you both. We'll be looking these in next month's tip: 

Can Empathy be Quick?  


  1. Hi Locana,

    I found this to be one of your most helpful and insightful blog postings. I was delighted by how succinctly you went thru a complex process and yet made it clear and useful (for me!)...

    I enjoyed about hearing about "the bits left out...", and about making the communication "solution oriented" - especially seeing the consequences of implying a problem that might not be there, and I felt relief reading about your suggestion about keeping the door open. I can remember many situations with my son where I so wanted to here what was really going on for him, but recognized my pace might not be his and by giving him that sense of the open door, he would eventually come back to me with the depth of connection and sharing that I wanted - even if it took a year sometimes!

    Thanks again! jas...

  2. Once again, thank you, Locana! This post speaks exactly to what I've been dealing with at work at the moment, and has given me some helpful instructions about how I can better communicate with my workmates. Thanks for the insight.

  3. my answer : Understand yourself - that's all we need to know. Even if a person tells us what is going on, it will never be the whole picture. But we can understand what is going on for ourselves, and know when we are being triggered, and hopefully can take the pauses and do everything you suggest beneath - from the bully doc