How to Be Understood

My father recently asked me to write about why someone would have problems making themselves understood.  When I said I would need more information, he became frustrated. He raised his volume and lowered his pitch.

“You do not need more information,” he said, “you need to slow down and listen to what other people are saying.” Helpfully proving his point, I interrupted his last word with, “—I disagree.”

Communication Is Hard

Green stop sign displaying the mixed message: GO

Communication can go wrong in so many ways.

Communication can go wrong in so many ways. Was the hypothetical person who was having trouble being understood speaking a different language than the person being spoken to? Was the person spoken to in the early stages of dementia?  Did a history between the conversational partners polarize them? Was this person offering feedback without having established trust? Was hethe one having difficulty being understood?  Could there be someone in particular he was having trouble communicating with?  These would have been helpful things to know. My mind works in concrete examples, not big abstractions. Give me the specific conversation and I stand a chance of finding the problem and a solution, but how could I possibly debug a communication problem with no particulars?

Emotional Intelligence

The fictional character, Dr. Temperance Brennan, the protagonist on the television series Bones, is an overly-intelligent forensic anthropologist who communicates in a literal fashion. In one episode, she spends the morning being interviewed for a televised talk show. Later, another character approaches her and asks, “Didn’t I see you on TV this morning?” Looking like an annoyed deer caught in headlights, Dr. Brennan responds, “How could I possibly know what you did this morning?”

I don’t care much for the Dr. Brennan character. She’s often arrogant, and the show’s writers push the “brilliant, but socially inept scientist” stereotype to the breaking point.  But, I kinda get it.  A friend grew up hearing his intellectual, analytical mother often ask, “For someone so smart, how can you be so stupid?” His mom may have thought she was complimenting her son’s intellect, but all my friend ever heard was that he was stupid.  Anyone who’s received criticism knows that given thirty positive comments and one negative one, the mind wants to dwell on the bad. The mind will worry over the negative one the way a tongue constantly worries the spot where a tooth has just been pulled.

Communication is but one of multiple intelligences. Some people are intelligent about math, logic, or music. Some have superior spatial reasoning, while others are linguistic geniuses. The best communicators I know have strong emotional intelligence skills.

The Curse of Knowledge

Effective communication requires emotional agility and a willingness to look for and work to overcome the curse of knowledge. Brothers Dan and Chip Heath explain this curse in their book, Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die.  They introduce Elizabeth Newton, a Stanford student who earned a Ph.D. in psychology for a study where she assigned people to one of two roles: “tappers” or “listeners.” Tappers were given a list of twenty-five well-known songs, such as “Happy Birthday to You” and “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Each tapper was asked to pick a song and tap out the rhythm to on a table.

The listeners were supposed to guess the song.  In the experiment, 120 songs were tapped out. Before the tapping started, Newton asked the tappers to predict the odds that the listeners would guess correctly. They predicted that they would get their message across 50 percent of the time, compared to the actual results—listeners identified 3 of the 120 songs— that’s 1 in 40.  Why were their predictions so far off?

Because when a tapper taps, the tapper is hearing the song in her head, but the listeners can’t hear that tune. They hear disconnected taps, “like a kind of bizarre Morse Code.” Tappers are flabbergasted at how hard the listeners seem to be working to pick up the tune. To the tappers, the tune is obvious. But tappers have knowledge (the song title) that makes it impossible for them to imagine what it’s like for the listeners to hear isolated taps rather than a song. Once we know something, our knowledge has “cursed” us. And it becomes difficult for us to share our knowledge with others, because we can’t readily recreate our listeners’ state of mind. — Made to Stick

People Don't Think the Same Thoughts

Could my Dad be hearing his own music and not understanding that his listeners do not hear the same songs?  People, even in families, do not think the same thoughts.

My friend Bryan explains it this way: “I had to really learn that lesson with my girlfriend.  Specifically, the part where I expected her to think like me and respond to what I said the way I thought she should have. I had to truly learn (beyond theory) that people do think differently. We process information differently. We hear jokes differently. We prioritize phrases in sentences/paragraphs differently. Essentially, I had to learn how to meet people where they are.”

Eating Soup in Hell 

Eating soup in Hell

Not being understood is a special kind of hell. For someone as smart as my Dad, it must be incredibly frustrating. Imagine someone you love is in trouble and you know something that could help them. Now imagine that you have no way to reach them. You watch them suffer, and you suffer too. It would be like eating soup in hell.

One day a man asked his rabbi what heaven and hell were like. The rabbi answered that hell was a large room where there was a huge round table holding a delicious-smelling pot of stew, but the people seated at the table were thin and sickly.  Each person held a spoon with handle longer than the person’s arms. Each could reach into the pot of stew and take a spoonful, but because the handle was so long, none could get the spoons back into their mouths.

Then the rabbi described heaven, and it appeared exactly the same. A large round table with a pot of mouth-watering stew. The people seated at the table had the same long-handled spoons, but they were well nourished and plump, laughing and talking.

The man said, “I don’t understand.”

The rabbi explained, “These people have learned to share and feed one another.”

Maybe we have to be willing to feed each other’s hunger to be understood.

A Better Way?

A simple model for being understood doesn’t exist. But it may be a unicorn worth chasing. To build a house where we can be understood, we need to first set the foundation by seeking to understand those we want to be understood by. And just as tugging on grass doesn’t make it grow any faster, this is a process that can’t be forced.  You can’t will someone else to understand you. Communication is not a Jedi mind trick.

The book, We Need To Talk, by Celeste Headlee opened my eyes to many ways that I can improve conversationally. An added benefit is that most of these improvements should raise the level of kindness in the relationship. (To me, kindness is acting in a caring and warm manner, regardless of the issue at hand; so being warm and respectful while giving critical feedback or setting boundaries counts as kind. Note—being nice is not the same as being kind—that’s just people pleasing and avoiding conflict. I am working on being kind rather than nice.

Great communicators have “smarts and hearts.” Author Seth Godin says that communication is the transfer of emotion. 

To Improve Communication

• “Listening is the cheapest, most effective concession we can make in a negotiation.” — Chris Voss (FBI negotiator)

• People would rather hear stories than be lectured to. — Chip and Dan Heath in Made to Stick.  The most effective leaders don’t tell people what to do. Instead, they tell stories about where they want to end up and let people figure out how to get there.

• Be aware of your nonverbal actions. Instead of a lecture on what someone did wrong or an eye-roll, maybe what’s needed is a sympathetic look. Actions can express understanding.

Never threaten someone's autonomy. People like to feel that their options are open. If you give them an order—“Calm down” or “Be reasonable”—all they will hear is that you’re threatening their freedom to maneuver, and they will shut down. Nobody ever grew up because an angry spouse screamed, “Grow up!” … People want to believe that they are intelligent, autonomous, and good. — Robert Greene, The Laws of Human Nature

• Only share opinions when you can argue both sides well. This comes from Farnam Street founder, Shane Parish.  Celeste Headlee suggests that to gracefully deal with being pressed for an opinion, you can say, “I don’t have an opinion on that; why don’t you tell me how you got to have such a firm one? It sounds like I could learn something.”

• When someone repeats something, instead of saying, “you told me already,” say, “Yes, I remember that…” It’s a more caring response. — Celeste Headlee

• Avoid repetition. Saying the same thing over and over is no more effective than being in a foreign country and speaking louder at someone who doesn’t speak your language. Ever heard a favorite song too many times? How do you react to an over-played song?  People tune out messages that they have heard too often. Beating dead horses is hard on you and the corpses.

Giving Comfort

• Be there or go elsewhere; give your full attention… If you want to get out of a conversation, get out of it. Tell the other person, politely, that you have too much on your mind to really listen to what they’re saying: “I need to gather my thoughts…” or “I’m so sorry, but I’m struggling to stay focused and I do want to hear what you have to say. Can I check back in later?” — Celeste Headlee, We Need to Talk

• When a friend is in need, ask mostly open (not closed) questions, because closed-ended questions typically allow you to retain control of the conversation. Open-ended questions transfer control to the person responding (they can take as much or as little time as they like to answer a question that starts with “why” or “how”— but be careful with “why” questions—they can put people on the defensive). — Celeste Headlee, We Need to Talk

• Comfort in, dump out.  This means when someone has experienced a hardship, you pay attention to your relationship with them before talking about the problem.  If they are closer to the tragedy than you are, you offer comfort, not complaints.  This is explained well in Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience, and Finding Joy, by Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant.  Psychologist Susan Silk suggests writing the names of people in the center of the tragedy and drawing a circle around them. Then draw a bigger circle around that one and write the names of the people who are next most affected by the event. Keep drawing larger circles for people based on proximity to the crisis. Wherever you are in the circle, offer comfort to those in smaller circles and reach out for support from those who are farther removed from the situation.

• When you counsel someone, you should appear to be reminding him of something he had forgotten, not of the light he was unable to see. — Baltasar Gracian

• The easiest way to know how someone likes to be treated is to observe how they treat their favorite people. — Robert Greene, The Laws of Human Nature

Giving Feedback

• It’s great to listen to someone without being judgmental, but the lack of judgment must be genuine. Before giving feedback, you need to establish trust. This means no gotchas. There’s a great visual metaphor, a cartoon by Skeletonclaw that shows a man with an oyster shell for a head on the couch at his psychiatrist's office. The doctor, who is wearing a pearl necklace, tells him that for therapy to work, he needs to open up to her. He replies that he has a hard time trusting people. As he speaks, his shell opens and she grabs the pearl and runs from the room shouting, "Got it!"

If you’re giving feedback, make sure that the recipient knows you care and that you’re coming from a place of trust and love. This is the only way that you can be candid and blunt in your feedback, and this makes your feedback more likely to be accepted.

• Only coach the coachable. Coachable people want feedback. They are honest and humble; they persevere, work hard, and are open to hearing negative feedback.

The Swiss Cheese Model

• Communicating well requires self-awareness and an interest in others.  The more you know about the person you’re talking with the easier it will be to explain what you want to say in terms they will understand. If you want to teach communication to someone who cooks, tell them about the Swiss Cheese Model of Communication (I made this up):

Think of your message and the understanding of the person you want to communicate with as slices of Swiss cheese: unless the holes all line up perfectly, your message will not get through.  We can increase the chances of successful communication and make conversations more resilient by adding precautions against errors. We prevent errors by: having fewer slices of cheese, increasing the number of holes (or making the holes larger), and being alert for when several holes have lined up.


• Wait 3 seconds after someone stops speaking before talking.

• Think before you speak. Especially when you anticipate a difficult conversation.  Be clear on why you need to say something.  This will help your message to be better received and understood.  Try: Thank you risking your life to pull my grandson from the icy river. Instead of: Where are his mittens?

• At the risk of being laughed at for writing a 2,500-word answer to my Dad’s question: Aim for brevity. If someone asks you for the time, don’t tell them how to build a clock.