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"You Don't Understand..." There is Dysfunctional Power in Being Misunderstood

You don't understand... We’re a technology company; health care; construction; scientists; engineers; consultants; retail. You wouldn’t understand – we’re from the Southeast; Southwest; Midwest; Northwest; Northeast; New York City; Montana; China; India; Africa. You couldn’t possibly understand me I’m a millennial, baby boomer, gen Xer. Over the years, I enjoyed the opportunity of working with a great variety of people and organizations. Each one of them taught me something valuable. As diverse as these individuals are, they almost all share a number of things in common. Probably most notable (and predictable) is the announcement that they are completely different than anyone I have ever worked with before.

My sarcastic reply has been, “You may be right, let’s test your theory. Do you have people who work here? Do you sell to people? Are any of your vendors people? If not, you are right; I can’t possibly understand and it will be impossible for me to help you.” All right, I know that’s a smart-aleck attitude. I don’t always say it exactly that way. I’m certainly not saying I know all there is about being human. However, I have learned to trust and work from very reliable principles and processes.

I’m not saying each and every individual and organization isn’t unique and special. Individual worth is a very important. For me, it’s a fundamental value. I am saying often the key to creating solutions and moving forward with integrity is anchored in understanding fundamental principles of what it means to be human. (I’ve identified at least four in my organizational culture model. This will be the subject of another article.) Based on these principles, trends and themes can be identified that lead to important insights. This makes it possible to build on agreement while understanding, appreciating and learning from differences. All told, we’re a lot more alike than we are different.

I strive to work from the concept of people’s need to be understood. In fact, I have seen no benefit in impressing people with how smart I am. That just doesn’t open any door I want to go through. Yet, when people feel I understand them, they are willing to begin the coaching process. This demonstrates an important factor in being worthy of trust.

Before we swing the pendulum too far from each person being completely unique in the world to everyone being carbon copies of each other, I want to identify the powerful balance of both perspectives. To truly gain understanding and establish trust and credibility, we must simultaneously see people and organizations in both the shared traits that make us human and the unique characteristics that make us individuals. The common ground and complementary strengths.

Similar to the side of the pendulum that says “I am completely unique and no one understands me,” is the opposing side where everyone sees things just like me – “I am the standard of intelligence and good judgment.” The term, “common sense” usually describes the second side of the pendulum. When we lament that others are not using or don’t have common sense, we’re saying “they don’t think like I do.” (I don’t believe there is such a thing as common sense. If common sense really existed, there would be no reason to come up with a term for it.)

Both sides of the pendulum serve the same purpose. In their entrenched conditions, they are obstacles to learning and growth. In both cases the statement, “I am already right and have nothing to learn” comes out loud and clear.

It’s apparent that the need to be understood is real and important. Therefore, your willingness and ability to understand others is an essential prerequisite to your opportunity to contribute. The more difficult challenge arises in working with people and organizations who invest energy in not being understood. These are the folks who continue to proclaim “you don’t understand” in spite of your best efforts to listen, reflect and empathize. Maybe this is to cover a flawed thought process. Maybe it’s to excuse or rationalize resistance to change. Maybe it developed into a pattern of habit resulting in a persistent feeling of helplessness which, believe it or not, creates an uncomfortable comfort zone. It is always difficult to have our reality challenged. In any event, putting others in a category of not understanding supports our need to control and creates an impenetrable barrier to their ability to influence us. There is a dysfunctional power in being misunderstood.

I believe a fundamental factor of this barrier to understanding is people often don’t know the difference between understanding and agreeing. If we start with disagreement, understanding serves no purpose other than to threaten the status quo and our rightness. Ironically, there can be no basis of either agreement or disagreement until a full understanding is reached. The advice of Stephen Covey given so many years ago – seek first to understand – may seem passe yet it still holds true. Until we understand, we are not qualified to agree, disagree, or add information.

Why then does it so often seem our nature to seek first to disagree? I promise, much more progress comes from identifying even a sliver of agreement to build on rather than negotiating through mountains of disagreement. Agility or the ability to adjust to an ever-changing landscape consistently proves to be essential to long-term success. This requires constant learning and change. The need to be misunderstood is often the first and greatest barrier to agility or coach-ability.

I often hear people say they are working with people who create needless barriers to being understood. “If they would be open to what I have to teach them we could make more progress.” “If they would start with and build on what we have in common, it would really help us to reach our goals.” And so, it would. Yet, I have gained even greater benefit from understanding and overcoming my own propensity to block the influence of others because of my need to be right. I guess I’m not that different after all. Are you … really?

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