Why Saying ‘I Understand’ Is an Act of Arrogance

Empathy symbolIn an episode of Two and a Half Men (a high-ratings US television sitcom), the rakish cad character played by Charlie Sheen discovers that he can easily manipulate others by solemnly saying to them, “I understand.”

When he first says it, other people believe him, and begin to gush their feelings to him. Of course, his empathy is faux, and so the comedy begins.

Empathy is Cognition Plus Connection

The best way to influence (not manipulate) others is for them to feel that you understand them.

Yet the key word in the preceding sentence is not ‘understand,’ but ‘feel.’

It is one thing to understand someone; it is quite another for them to feel understood.

A seller might perfectly understand a buyer’s needs; often, in fact, even better than the buyer. That doesn’t mean, unfortunately, that the buyer feels understood.

A consultant might perfectly understand what a client is going through, on all levels—including the deeply emotional issues facing the client. But even understanding the emotional issues of the client doesn’t guarantee the client will feel understood.

A common sales truism says, “People don’t care what you know, until they know that you care.”

Just because it’s a truism doesn’t mean it isn’t true.  And it is, profoundly so.  The point of listening is not what you hear–it is the act of helping another feel heard.

Why Saying “I Understand” is Arrogant

On the face of it, the statement “I understand” is the perfect expression of empathy. Unlike Charlie Harper (Charlie Sheen’s character in the sitcom), we usually mean it. We are sincere when we say it, so for me to suggest that ‘I understand’ is arrogant may sound insulting.

But think of it this way. The feeling of being truly understood is, by definition, something that must come from the one who is understood—not from the one doing the understanding. To assert that you understand how someone feels about their situation is to usurp their very role as object of the understanding.

It is not our right as advisors or sellers to tell someone we understand them; it is only they who can inform us that they feel understood. For us to make the claim ourselves is arrogant.

A Better Way to Express Empathy

We can never truly know another. All we can do is to guess at how we might feel in similar circumstances—and assume that they might feel likewise. The source of much tragedy—and comedy—comes from mistaken assumptions that others are exactly like us.

So, what is a better way to express empathy? How do we communicate, across the divide of individuality, a sense of connection with another? Here are a few ideas.

  • That must feel…
  • I can only imagine how that must be…
  • I suppose if I were you I’d feel…
  • Is that (difficult, easy, complicated…) for you?
  • I think I might have a glimmer of what that means for you…

The particular words don’t matter as much as a combination of sincerity and a respect for the ineffable separateness of the other person.

Ironically, the way to convey connection is to acknowledge the impossibility of fully achieving it.
 

10 replies
  1. Andrea Howe
    Andrea Howe says:

     

    Great blog, Charlie. I have often said that "I understand" is a cheap acknowledgment; now I see the arrogance behind it as well.  Your point about usurping the others’ role as the object of understanding is spot on, too — I had never thought about it that way.

    I can only imagine how cathartic it felt to write that blog post! 😉

    Reply
  2. peter vajda
    peter vajda says:

    Hi, Charlie,

     

    Some thoughts:

     

    One of the most effective ways to express understanding is by reflecting back/paraphrasing to the speaker what you hear. If done form a place of empathy and compassion, you can be perceived as listening, connected and caring. If done robotically, matter-of-fact-ly, you deepen the divide and chasm between you.

     

    Phrases such as, "so, you think/feel/believe…"  and is an effective way to communicate understanding. " That must be hard/difficult/frustrating/pleasing…" is another which tells the speaker you are listening for understanding.  "Sounds like you…" is yet another…all followed with a paraphrasing of what you think/felt you heard and asking for verbal/non-verbal confirmation.

     

    Krishnamurti, the Indian Philosopher, says the highest form of intelligence is being able to observe without evaluating. Reflecting back supports this. Hearing/listening and not making any type of interpretation, value judgment or even offering a "fix" is what true understanding is.

     

    No two people have the exact same neuronal, neurological makeup, experience, or history.  So, for me, saying something to the effect that "if I were you," or some such is impossible. That’s why respectful, empathic, compassionate listening and reflection leads to a real and true "understanding." When we suggest we "think we have an understanding…" the rest of the statement needs to be along the lines of, "Am I close?" or "Do I get it.." asking the speaker to confirm that I did understand.

     

    Jumping into a "fix-it," advising mode (to show I "understand") does not reflect deep listening/understanding; but just the opposite – that it’s all about "me" and not the speaker. Advising, one-upping, education, telling, teaching, consoling, story-telling, sympathizing, interrogating, explaining or correcting are neither ways to make one feel better nor do they reflect true listening and deep understanding. They’re just ego attempts to put myself ahead of the speaker.

     

    When we find ourself responding to what another is feeling, or thinking, we are truly listening for understanding.

     

    When we tell folks what we think is going on inside them, we are off-putting and this is why tone of voice is paramount. If there’s the slightest hint of sarcasm, or criticism, for example, in our reflection, folks will be sensitive to that and pull back. On the other hand, if our tone communicates that we’re "asking" whether we have understood, not that we "have" understood, then the connection will be deeper and more honest, sincere and heart-felt.

     

    One of the keys to effective listening for understanding is: "Don’t just do something, stand there," with an open heart, and closed mouth.

    Reply
  3. kathleen fasanella
    kathleen fasanella says:

    This post made me think of Hayakawa’s _Language in Thought and Action_.  One of his ideas is that words are never used the same way twice. Never. That every use of a word be it emotive or descriptive, is framed within a unique context. In fact, in reciting a tale, a speaker will alter or intent a separate nuanced meaning in subsequent recitations of their same story. It is a provocative idea to mull in that it becomes literally impossible to say "I understand".

    Reply
  4. Charlie (Green)
    Charlie (Green) says:

    Trip, reminds me a Kierkegaard quip.  He describes how in a dream he appeared before the gods, who granted him one last wish.  They smiled at him, from which he inferred his wish had been granted, since it would hardly have done for them to have laughed and said his wish was granted!

    Kathleen, fascinating.  As long as we’re on the philosopher theme, it echoes Heraclitus: "You cannot step into the same river twice."  I had never heard it applied to interactive events, but it fits perfectly.  You literally cannot say "I understand."  Way cool.

    Reply
  5. Willem
    Willem says:

    Charles, I really like how you articulated this; I similarly blogged about this issue, from the angle of "disagreement". This word is thrown around so much, and yet it implies the same thing as "I understand"; you must understand before you can say you "disagree":

    http://www.mythic-cartography.org/2009/06/02/i-do-not-agree-to-disagree

    All this seems to imply that the most deeply useful communication comes in the form of stories, and questions that ask for stories.

    Reply
  6. Shaula
    Shaula says:

    Charlie, I think this post touches on a language issue that is very culture-specific.

    In Japan, everyone says "I understand" (wakarimashita) ALL the time. It is deeply ingrained in the structure of the language. (If you ever observe someone speaking Japanese on the telephone, you’ll almost inevitably hear wakarimashita multiple times, especially winding down to the call sign-off.) And the meaning is completely different than in US English.

    When you say wakarimashita, what you’re doing at a functional level is acknowledging the transmission of the message; what you’re saying is that you hear and understand the words being spoken.  There doesn’t really seem to be an implication of understanding the intention behind the words, the way there can be in American English.

    I wonder if all English speaking cultures use "I understand" in the same sense as Americans, and I wonder how many languages / cultures parallel wakarimashita.

    Reply

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. […] things from the clients’ perspective requires more than just taking good notes, muttering “I understand” from time to time, or periodically pausing to summarize the content of their communications. It means taking the time […]

  2. […] things from the clients’ perspective requires more than just taking good notes, muttering “I understand” from time to time, or periodically pausing to summarize the content of their communications. It means taking the time […]

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