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Understanding, Empathy and Common Experiences

Understanding and Conflict

Understanding and Punishment

Understanding, Depression and Suicide

Judging and Understanding

"You Just..." -- Notes on motives, understanding, depression and suicide



How Understood Do You Feel

Threatened by Understanding

Stories About Understanding

Understanding and Relief - How nice it feels to feel understood

From Head to Toe - A mother who thought she understood her daughter completely

The Washing Up - Helping a 10 year old feel understood leads to her cooperation and apology

A Father's Understanding - Better than a stuffed animal

Another Father's Reaction to this Page

Understanding and Defensiveness "You need to understand..."

I Understand, But I Disagree

Mejor Agua Fria - Cold water is better

That's not howthings are, Jessica

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We all have a need to be understood. This need is based on survival. If we are not understood we won't be able to communicate our needs. For example, if the baby needs food and can't communicate this, he could die of starvation. If a person needs help and no one understands this, he will not get the help he needs to survive.

Understanding, Empathy and Common Experiences

Latter on during the day when I posted the first version of this page I chatted with someone who was feeling suicidal. I was feeling very smug about being so good at understanding. This person told me she didn't care if she lived or died anymore. I tried to show her that I understood by saying "Ok, so you don't care if you live or die, is that right?" She said that was right and repeated she didn't care if she lived or died. I said, "Ok. I understand." Next I asked her how much she felt understood. We had talked many times and usually she feels very understood by me, so today I also expected a high score as well. Instead this is what she wrote:

Have you ever loved the sight of your blood seeping from your veins? i'm guessing not. so... explain to me how you could understand me today? i've been talking to you for only like 5 minutes. i haven't given you a chance to understand. but if i must tell you NOW, probly not at all. because you're not addicted to drugs, you don't have a deep passion for death, and as far as i know you can remember a time you were happy. (more of the chat)

This reminded me never to make assumptions about understanding someone. It also reminded me that it takes more than technique to really help someone feel understood. And it reminded me that unless I have had the same experiences someone else has, and unless I have exactly the same level of innate emotional sensitivity, I could never really fully understand their pain.

But it also reminded me of the importance of feeling my own feelings. Until I started reflecting on my feelings and trying to identify them I had little or no empathy for anyone. I don't think I ever cried over someone else's pain until I was 35 years old, unless it was when I was too young to remember.

As I began to think about and really feel all of my various feelings, I started being able to relate to more and more people's pain, as well as their joy. I started thinking about when I felt proud, creative, resourceful, inspired, trusted, successful, fulfilled as well as when I felt judged, mocked, insulted, afraid, intimidated, controlled, trapped.

The more feelings I really experienced, the more I had in common with people who were, from outside appearances, very different from me. It is true that I have never loved the sight of my own blood seeping from my veins, but because I have felt rejected, alone, judged, misunderstood, unloved, unwanted and empty, as this person feels when she wants to die, I feel more empathy for her. In fact I started to cry during our conversation. I am sure this is partly from the pain of my own unmet emotional needs and partly from connecting with her pain. It might even be fair to say that my pain is what formed this connection between us. Either way, it was this kind of empathy which helped me stay there and listen to her for as long as she needed me to.

Even if two people can never fully understand each other, it is this kind of empathy that brings us one step closer together.

Understanding and Conflict

Many people agree that the best way to reduce conflicts, including international wars, is through mutual respect. Erich Fromm said, To respect a person is not possible without knowing him. He could have also said that respect is not possible without understanding the person. Understanding, therefore, is a key to conflict prevention and conflict resolution.

One of the best things I ever heard about understanding was this

Seek first to understand, then to be understood.

I also like this quote by Haim Ginott

In an argument, the test of wisdom is the ability to summarize
the other person's view before starting one's own

I would take this a step further. I would suggest one actually ask the other person how much they feel understood from 0-10. Then listen till they feel understood 10. In fact, I believe one of the quickest ways to stop any argument is to stop and ask the other person how much they feel understood.

Understanding someone does not always prevent or solve conflicts, but it does help us reach a mutually acceptable compromise.

See also "You need to understand"

You Need to Understand...

Sometimes when people are in a conflict, one person will interrupt the other and say: "You need to understand that.... "

Usually a person says this when they are feeling threatened and defensive. Often it is an authority figure whose authority is being questioned or it may be someone who has to enforce the company's or the organization's rules.

Here is an example. You're waiting on the phone for a very long time. When someone finally answers you let them know how frustrated you are and how much of an inconvenience having to wait has caused you. They interrupt you and say "Well, you need to understand that we have a lot of customers... "

When someone says this it doesn't help you feel any more understood. It probably only makes you feel more resentful because you don't feel listened to.

This violates the principle of "Seek first to understand then to be understood"

The other person wants you to understand them, but they have not taken the time to try to really understand you. If they did they would show you more empathy. Saying "you need to understand" doesn't show empathy. Instead it is usually a form of invalidation.

Understanding and Punishment

Humans need understanding. We also need to understand why people do things. Therefore we need to teach all students and all future parents; all lawyers, all judges, all politicians and all police this message:

You will never understand a person by judging them. You will never understand a person by labeling them. You will never understand a person by insulting them. You will never understand a person by invalidating them. You will never understand a person by giving them orders. And you will never understand a person by punishing them

Understanding, Depression and Suicide

When I talk to depressed and suicidal adolescents one thing they all have in common is a huge unmet need for understanding. I will ask them how much they feel understood in general from 0-10. Usually this number is below 4. When I ask how much they feel understood by their own parents it is usually zero.

When I am talking to them, I make sure I ask them how much they feel understood by me and I am not satisfied until the number is 8, 9 or 10. By just listening non-judgmentally, as best I can, I usually can get the numbers to that level in a few conversations. It is really not that hard to help someone feel understood. It is a skill that can be learned.

I sincerely believe that if we were all better at understanding, listening and validation there would be far fewer teenage suicides. (See chat below.)

See links on listening and validation

Chat about suicide and understanding

  Today this person calls herself I don't give a f*ck anymore, which I have abbreviated to IDGAFA
Steve what's up?
IDGAFA the sky is up... but i am not. i am losing my mind and i've decided that i don't care.
i really don't
i dont care
i dont give a fu*k
Steve ok let me make sure i understand this
u dont care anymore?
Steve u dont give a fu*k?
is that right?
IDGAFA yup... i don't care. i don't care if i live or die right this minute.
or whether i disapoint someone. or whether i piss someone off.
i just wanna die. and i don't care about anything else other than how i'm going to die.
Steve ok
i understand
see i am working on my new page on understanding
so i am really trying to be understanding today
do u want to see it?
IDGAFA have you ever loved the sight of your blood seeping from your veins?
i'm guessing not. so... explain to me how you could understand me today?
Steve good point
so how much do u feel understood
by me, today?
IDGAFA i've been talking to you for only like 5 minutes. i haven't given you a chance to understand. but if i must tell you NOW, probly not at all. because you're not addicted to drugs, you don't have a deep passion for death, and as far as i know you can remember a time you were happy.
i hate my life
i hate life altogether
Steve ok tell me what u hate most right now
IDGAFA everything
and don't tell me that's not a real answer... cuz it is. whether something good ever happens to me, or has happened, it doesn't matter. it doesn't change the way i feel. i am always depressed. and i always have been.
and when i sit in my room, crying, and bleeding from 50 new fresh cuts... i tend to think that the depression will never fucking stop
Steve yeah
IDGAFA it hurts when no one in the entire world, that's living, understands you. it hurts when you try to be so fucking perfect for everyone and try as hard as you can to make everyone happy, and then you're just miserable. and no one understands... and it feels like no one even cares.
This was actually a chat with Sarah X when she was 13. We talked for approximately one hour. By the end of the chat she thanked me for listening and said she was going to go walk to the library.
Stories About Understanding

Understanding and Relief - How nice it feels to feel understood

From Head to Toe - A mother who thought she understood her daughter completely

The Washing Up - Helping a 10 year old feel understood leads to her cooperation

A Father's Understanding - Better than a stuffed animal


From Head to Toe

Early in my work with emotions, around 1997, I spoke to a mother of a 16 year old. The mother confidently told me she understood her daughter from "head to toe." A few minutes later her daughter came out to join our discussion. I asked the daughter how much she felt understood by her mother from 0 -10. She replied "6". The mother quickly got defensive and verbally attacked her daughter. When the daughter tried to explain why she didn't feel understood, the mother interrupted her and debated with her. An argument started, ending with the mother walking out of the room in frustration... and with the daughter feeling less understood than before!

I Understand, But I Disagree

The other day I was talking to someone and he said, "I understand, but I disagree." Even though he said he understood, I definitely didn't feel understood. I felt confronted and a bit on guard or defensive. Perhaps it was also his tone of voice, but I felt less open to hearing his view than if he hadn't have said it that way.

For me, it would have been better for him to have actually shown some understanding first. Then he could have said something like, "Can I tell you my thoughts on that?"

I suspected that someone had taught him to tell people that he understood them before he disagreed with them. If he reads this, maybe he will write me and let me know! In any case, I believe he was trying to keep the discussion friendly and non-confrontive. It is important then, for people who do want the same thing, that they be aware of how others feel when they hear something like this. Perhaps in his culture, as he was from Israel, this was in fact a relatively non-aggressive, or as some might say, a "non-violent" thing to say compared to other ways they commonly communicate. Outside of that culture though, I suspect many other people will also feel at least a little the way I did, so hopefully this note will be kept in mind by others who use that expression of trying to maintain peaceful relations.

By the way, in searching Google for "I understand, but I disagree" here is one thing I found:

Saying "I understand, but I disagree," is just a nicer way of saying "You're wrong."

So now I feel more understood :)

S. Hein
Feb 12, 2011
Wanaka, New Zealand

Understanding Myself

I have felt misunderstood pretty much all of my life. I didn't realize it till the past few years or so, though. I have been trying to get people to understand me. That is one reason I used to post my journal writing. But then someone used my journal writing to discredit and misrepresent me so I have stopped. I have also met people in real life who I thought I might feel understood by then I discovered that wasn't the case.

Later I realized I can't make anyone understand me. And it is more important to understand myself.

Kind of like they say you have to love yourself before you can love someone else.

I think you might also have to understand yourself to understand others. Maybe understanding others helps. I suppose it is a two way street and neither one really comes first.

Which is kind of like Fromm said "To love yourself you must love everyone." Or something like that. (See my page on love)

Threatened by Understanding - Just a note on this for now. It seems some people actually feel threatened by understanding. They don't want to understand and/or they don't want others to.

If you ask someone "why?" you will sometimes see how quickly some people feel threatened.

I have written more about this here

Understanding Takes Longer - not finished

Understanding Takes More Time


My thoughts this morning from convo with girl who calls herself Muslim, lived in America in 90's, studies law, was in debate contest in USA recently. Father is into sports got his PhD in it from Iowa. Said she wants to go traeling.

Feel discouraged so I need to feel encouraged - encouraging thing is that we could speak English to each other, understand some of what we were saying. At least the words.

But I feel bad because I didn't listen well. I felt rushed to say things to her. I was afraid P would come back. I also felt limited by time because the girl said she wouldn't be back today. She was just "helping" her mother. Said she wore her head thing because of "modesty." Said she didn't used to wear it. Now she is more of a conformist. Like so many teens who are broken by the system.

I feel loss. Loss of an opportunity to listen, learn, show understanding, unite.

I didn't tell her we need more understanders and less judges. We need caring, not controlling. We need real education and need meeting, not punishment, threats etc. I feel loss because it is unlikely I will ever see her again. I didn't have time to saw so many things I would have liked to have said. But also, I would have had to listen for a long time. Religious people can talk a long long, long time. Especially "educated" ones. She studied "Islamic Religion" or something at the university. So she would be able to talk and talk and talk. But she listened pretty well given that she was brainwashed to be a Musim.

I feel the loss of the chance to ask her why she wanted to go traveling. I was too needy. I needed to tell her what I thought about traveling vs education. I was as needy as the man who came up and said he is from Switzerland. Because he was born on the page of the atlas which was opened to Switzerland. He needed to tell that story. Then he needed to tell the story fo how big the "Dutch" children were when I asked if he could speak Deutsch.

"understanding takes longer than judging".

No results found for "understanding takes longer than judging".


Information No results found for "understanding takes more intelligence than judging".

Information No results found for "understanding takes more intelligence than".

March 25, 2012

Understanding Takes Longer Search

From a page on Harvards website.


Instructional Approach

The activities in this module are based on a set of pedagogical assumptions and are best supported by a certain type of classroom culture as outlined below:

  • Gear your classroom culture towards developing understanding, instead of "right answers." Deep understanding takes longer to develop, but the pay-off is greater in terms of being able to apply the learning more broadly.
  • Encourage students to talk to each other when discussing ideas rather than directing all their comments to you. This encourages greater involvement on behalf of the students and supports the development of a community of learners.
  • Provide opportunities for students to engage in the kind of scientific inquiry that scientists engage in—where the process of learning the subject matter mimics the process of "finding out." However, not all learning can be inquiry-based or constructivist. Students also need exposure to the models that scientists have evolved during centuries of scientific inquiry.
  • Students already hold general principles about how the world works. Often students don't explicitly know what assumptions they are making. They need opportunities to reflect on their own thinking.
  • Students won't really change their minds until their objections have been dealt with and the evidence is convincing to them. Their most challenging questions can drive a discussion towards more sophisticated models.
  • Science involves the systematic discard and revision of models for ones with greater explanatory power. Understanding evolves in a similar way. Expect students to move towards scientifically accepted models, but realize that they won't all accept the scientific model before the end of the unit.
  • Encourage testing and revising one's model over "getting it right." Students who adopt the "right" model without deeply reasoning it through are likely to revert to their less evolved models as soon as the unit ends.
  • Encourage students to take risks in their thinking and to test their ideas in a social context. Instead of shooting ideas down, consider the relevant evidence.
  • Encourage students NOT to just accept ideas because someone else says they should. They should change their ideas when the evidence is convincing to them.
  • Some models have more explanatory power than others, but no model explains everything about a particular phenomenon. Each model fits in some ways and not in others. Critique models as a regular part of class discussions.