Understanding and Being Understood
“The most basic of all human needs is the need to understand and be understood.” — Ralph Nichols
My thought process began from within the confines of staff bathroom stall where inspirational literature is often photocopied and taped haphazardly at toilet-eye-level to the interior of the stall door.
The gist of the particular piece was that with words as our primary vehicle for communication, one would think we’d be better at it. But we’re not. Most over-talk and under-listen. Facing the stall door, I was told again that less is more when it comes to communication.
Fewer words is the way to go.
While I’m certain the Covey-esque message was intended to encourage, “two ears, one mouth” rang loudly in my head—that adorable little saying that has been hurting the feelings of the chatty since…forever.
Needing to be understood and listening to understand are often positioned as opposites. Immature versus mature. Self-centered versus selfless. Discourteous versus well-mannered. It seems we subtly applaud those who process internally as thoughtful, while shaking our heads disdainfully at those more inclined to verbal processing.
Juxtaposed, we can almost feel the tension mounting; two entities facing off against one another. One is active, desperate to ensure the listener really gets them. And the other is passive, silent and resigned; gracious enough to let the other speak, but maybe not courageous enough to honor his or her own voice.
Why, so often, do we pit these two against one another, like they’re dichotomies or extremes or mortal enemies?
Certainly some personality types experience the need to be understood more intensely than others, but all humans feel it, because being understood makes us feel known. The psychological need to be known and understood is a close second to our physical need for food, water, shelter and safety.
As I’ve held these seemingly repelling forces in separate fists, I’ve become aware of their concurrent need to pull together. Though they are different, they are woven together at a visceral level; two sides of the same coin.
We cannot be known and understood without opening our mouths to communicate. And we cannot know and understand others without closing our mouths to listen. As it turns out, it’s both-and.
The question is, where are we on the continuum? Do we need to talk more or listen more?
The reality is, many of us DO talk too much.
We all have that ‘friend’ who drones on and on, never pausing for breath, never leaving an opening for interjection or response. (Small pause for nervous self-reflection: please God, don’t let it be me!).
For me, the desire to be understood can make me talk way too much. It makes me keep going, long after the point has been made, desperate to secure the listener’s understanding. When we live from this end of the continuum, a healthy tennis game of speaking and listening becomes a solo event of talking and waiting to speak.
People who don’t listen are challenging. You know what else is challenging? People who don’t talk.
Friendships with people who are all listening-no talking tend to fade quite quickly for me. Not only do I want to be known, I want to know people. When I share my thoughts and ideas and there is zero reciprocation, it can leave me feeling unnerved; maybe even a little paranoid.
A more quiet personality may be a genuinely excellent listener. Or they may not care a sniff about what you’re saying, and while they’re not interrupting, neither are they engaged or interested. Or maybe, they have felt rejected, ignored and not understood themselves, to the point of despondency and resignation to silence. Less talking doesn’t necessarily equate to good listening.
This is absolutely an everything in moderation situation.
When everyone speaks and no one listens, it’s chaos. But when everyone listens and no one speaks, it’s a graveyard. Maturity is holding these two things in tension and allowing the pendulum to rest somewhere between blabbermouth and mute; in other words, knowing when to speak up and when to shut up.
But even with healthy communication in place, humans are imperfect. The true antidote to feeling misunderstood—or conversely, the way to live fully known—IS to listen. But not just to any old voice.
Job 12:13 (NIV) says “To God belong wisdom and power; counsel and understanding are his.”
What if we transfer the listening to understand part to God? What if we remove it from the natural realm of human interaction to the seeking of His perspective and wise counsel? The desire to feel understood is requited when I seek the one who embodies understanding.
I was rude to the God of the universe for years! I was that ignorant friend who would blather on ad nauseam—talking, processing, asking questions, seeking wisdom—but leaving no space for response. It’s like I would pick up the telephone and go full-stream-of-consciousness-running-monologue and then hang up. Until He taught me to be quiet.
He would talk and I would listen—to stories about how He made me, who He created me to be, what I was called to and how I am so loved beyond measure.
By listening, I began to live as one who is known and loved.
When we understand who God says we are, it diminishes our need to be understood by everyone else. This is not license to act like petulant children, abdicating common decency and scorning the counsel of others—“God says I’m awesome, so I don’t care what you think!” He created us for connection, not only with him, but with one another. However, when we are comfortable and secure in our identity, it reduces our need to explain ourselves incessantly.
Though we have an innate human longing to feel understood, when we live from a place of being understood and known by God, it lessens the desperation and urgent need to be understood by others. It becomes the icing on the cake and not the cake itself.
Let’s quiet ourselves and listen.
To the one who lovingly designed us. To the one who calls us by name. To the one who knows us completely. When we live as those who are loved and known, the pendulum comes to rest.
The way to feel understood is to listen to understand.
It’s not one or the other, friends. It’s both-and.
Ellen is a family-prioritizing, coffee-drinking, truth-telling, authenticity-seeking, list-making, Jesus-following, world-loving, ambiverted former-closet-writer. She’s a wife, a mama, a traveler and a worshipper. The words ‘laid back’ have never been used to describe her. She is an unabashed over-user of hashtags and emojis. The God message written on her heart is one of identity; she is passionate about living authentically as the person God created her to be and to helping others do likewise. Ellen lives on the East coast of Canada with her handsome husband, Marc, a teen named Cohen and a ‘tween named Ingrid. In addition to writing, she teaches school, leads worship…and all remaining hours are, quite literally, spent in her vehicle, driving kids to friends’ houses, hockey practices, music lessons and horseback riding. It’s a full, imperfect and wonderful life.