Understanding, a Vital Relationship Skill

In order to develop good enough relationships, the ability to understand others is vital. Unnecessary criticisms and judgments often result in hurt feelings. Emotions are the energy of relationships, the music we dance to, and in order to create good emotional connections, understanding is key.  We now know that all of our emotions are important. They give us valuable information and we need to be able to safely express all of them, even negative emotions. Emodiversity refers to our personal emotional ecosystem. Apparently, the ability to experience a great diversity of all kinds of emotions, including negative emotions, predicts greater emotional resilience. With emodiversity we engage deeply with the world and have a broader awareness of our interactions in the world which results in a deeper connection with life.  Being able to use our emotions to understand another person will strengthen our relationship with that person.

Our culture tends to be highly competitive resulting in a natural inclination to judge and/or criticize. In personal relationships the tendency to judge/criticize often damages the relationship. As we grow up we are taught to compete and to “be the best”.  Having competitive fun with a partner in some areas of a relationship can be healthy. For instance, playing games or challenging one another to a race can be fun. When the competition becomes more about who is “right” or “wrong” about daily living details or individual styles, it can place too much stress on the relationship. Living details such as which way to put the toilet paper in the holder, decorating preferences or what time to go to bed come from individual perceptions. That sort of detail is never “right” or “wrong”, it is based in subjective perceptions. Details like this need to be negotiated. Likewise, individual styles are never “right” or “wrong”. Everyone has a right to develop an individual style. If one partner is not comfortable with part of the other partners style, that partner can tactfully approach the topic and ask if the other partner is willing to change. If not, then the partner who is uncomfortable needs to work with his thoughts/feelings to develop acceptance.

Understanding another person well enough to overcome critical or judgmental thoughts can take some work and an authentic desire to understand. During our adolescence and young adult years one way we figure out who we are is by comparing ourselves to others and deciding that we are “not like” this person for this or that reason. This can develop into a habitual way of thinking which can prevent us from trying to understand and accept differences in others. If a person does not feel she is “good enough” she may have a tendency to judge or criticize others simply for “not being like me”. Understanding others can be difficult for anyone with low self-esteem.  When a person with low self-esteem judges another person he can, momentarily feel better about himself. Unfortunately, that will be a fleeting boost of self-esteem and this person will return to low self-regard.

The ability to understand another person is based in an individual’s healthy, mature brain.  If a person has experienced trauma in the past or is currently experiencing high levels of stress, she may have difficulty understanding others. Past or current unresolved stress results in our emotional brain structures being in a state of alert. When our brain is on alert it is telling us to defend ourselves and will not allow us to understand another person as well as we might like. In order to understand another person, we need to feel safe enough within ourselves to be relaxed and allow ourselves to be vulnerable so we can become mindfully attuned to the other person.

A sincere, deep desire to connect with another person requires us to be emotionally vulnerable and honest.  When we have a reasonable amount of trust in the other person and feel safe with him we can relax and be emotionally vulnerable and honest.  It is important to recognize that another person’s differences from us do not mean anything about us personally, they are normal, natural differences. An ability to mindfully accept and appreciate differences is imperative.

The understanding process begins with careful, mindful, accepting listening. Not listening with the intent to think of a rebuttal, help the person feel better or give advice, but listening with the intent to genuinely understand the other person. Knowing and accepting that this person is different and will have different thoughts, feelings and perceptions.  A mindset of true, open curiosity is key. Even if we don’t understand the other person’s feelings, validating their feelings helps them feel safe enough to continue to process. As the person continues the process of revealing their thoughts and feelings we understand better. Listening to understand someone requires a lot of patience. If we jump in to make comments too often we interrupt the flow of their thinking which can result in their feeling hurt and discouraged.

This kind of listening involves all of our senses and the desire to be attuned to the other person. With affirming eye contact we watch the other persons minute affective expressions and body language which give us information.  We listen for changes in tone, rhythm and what words the person stresses. We try to feel her, to sense her feelings. When he expresses a feeling, we feel that feeling with him.  And we allow ourselves to express the feelings we experience in concert with her feelings. We express the empathy we feel.

And we ask questions.  Although “perspective taking” can help in some situations, truly understanding another person requires asking good questions. All too often trying to take someone’s perspective results in assumptions, interpretations or projections which can be wrong and prevent true listening. If we think we can infer what the person is going to say next, it’s likely we’ve stopped listening. By asking him open-ended questions we help him explore his feelings more deeply.  As we do this we learn more about this person than we knew before and the bond between us deepens.

In their 2012 book, “Brain Based Parenting, the Neuroscience of Caregiving for Healthy Attachment,” Daniel Hughes, PhD, and Jonathan Baylin, PhD, describe this kind of listening as coming from, “the brain-heart circuitry that we use when we are making a concentrated effort to deeply understand another person’s experience rather than judge him or her while planning our rebuttal. Acceptance, then, facilitates the kind of non-judgemental awareness that is crucial for the robust functioning of the Child Reading and Meaning Making systems and for the promotion of mindful parenting,” (pg. 113).  Although this book was written about parent-child relationships, it applies to many other intimate relationships as well.  We all have a Meaning Making system to help us understand ourselves, others and life. When we are in an open mindset we are able to be patient and ask questions to help us understand ourselves, others and life. The authors refer to the “Child-Reading system” parents have that we all can develop in order to help us read others well enough to recognize when we need to listen to understand. When we are in a relaxed, open and non-defensive state of mind we are able to be receptive to others and listen to understand and improve our relationships.

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