THE BLOG

Is It Better to Understand Than to Be Understood?

02/28/2013 08:19 am ET | Updated Apr 30, 2013

My family and I were sitting around my mother's dinning room table when this question popped into my head. Having a very vocal family where everyone has strong opinions, I knew I was in for a hearty conversation. I was surprised however at how this simple question ignited a fascinating, deep hour-long conversation. I learned a lot, understood even more and by the end of the conversation I felt understood.

What has happened sense that discussion has been amazing. Every conversation I have had with the members of my family who participated in that dinner dialogue has been exponentially richer. We love each other deeply however we have a long history of talking over each other, each of us battling to be right. This has resulted in hurt feelings, feelings of not being understood and a lot of frustration. By engaging in the simple question -- Is it better to understand than to be understood, we miraculously have shifted our focus from being understood to understanding. We are asking each other to elaborate, clarify and to give examples so we can truly hear what the other is saying. Yes, at times we engage in the humor of this new behavior -- "Help me understand?" has become our mantra and we giggle when we say it. As cute or trite as this sounds it has taken us to a deeper understanding of each other and consequently are conversations are more meaningful and fun!

This experience moved me to explore this question more broadly. I asked my dear friends and colleagues and I posted the question on my Facebook. Once again I was surprised by the responses, people really thought about this question -- they struggled with it. While everyone I talked with valued being understood, most expressed that they valued understanding more. A few of the comments:

"It's hard to have a voice and not be understood, but how can you even begin to have a voice if you don't understand."

"It is better to understand so we have the opportunity to be understood."

"It is far better to understand than to be understood. Understanding creates knowledge and knowledge is the best tool in life."

"Understanding first helps you better understand how to be understood later."

"Most of the time we speak and act on our assumptions, true understanding requires us to let go of our assumptions."

"There is tremendous power in understanding."

"If everyone valued understanding over being understood eventually we would all be understood."

Imagine if we approached our most precious relationships with our focus on understanding over being understood. By searching to understand another we validate them and that validation creates trust. Trust allows us to be open and vulnerable with the other person opening the door to our being truly understood and loved. I often hear people say they love someone because "They see me," "They get me." Rarely do I hear people say I love him or her because I understand them. Maybe the first and most important step in falling in love is to understand the other.

Imagine if we approached the workplace environment valuing understanding over being understood -- understanding our peers, those who "manage" us and those we "manage". In my writings I often share my experience at Herman Miller because it was my Camelot -- the place where we created a culture of searching for understanding each other, our customers and our communities. We struggled against the conventional wisdom that "management knows best" and opted to tap into the hearts, minds and imagination of the people in our company to realize out vision and business goals. Shared understanding and shared agreements became the heart of our culture. We used dialogue as the tool to help us understand one another. We studied David Bohm, the theoretical physicist who contributed innovative ideas to quantum theory and Peter Senge helped to guide us through the dialogue process. We learned that the Greek roots of dialogue are dia (through) and logos (meaning) -- which we interpreted as "meaning running through us." According to David Bohm, the first requirement to create the conditions for dialogue is to "suspend judgment." When we suspend judgment we are truly focusing on understanding the other person, so we listen deeply. We go on their journey by abandoning all of the inner chatting in our head -- readying our response, finishing the other person's sentences or qualifying their statements. I have witnessed and participated in the power of choosing understanding over being understood in the workplace. The results were amazing -- by any measure!

If we step back and look at the macro implications of seeking to understand over being understood, this shift in mindset could help us to restore our democracy and to flourish again. When I look at the behavior of the U.S. Congress over the last decade, it is clear that both parties are focused on being understood -- being right, regardless of the consequences to our country. This is most evident by the sequester standoff that threatens to harm our country today. Understanding does not mean agreement, however understanding can lead to shared agreements. Imagine if our representatives in Congress had an authentic desire to understand one another. More important, what if they valued understanding the people and country they serve.

Imagine the ripple affect the shift to seeking to understand rather than fighting to be understood could have on racial, cultural, religious understandings, on our understanding each other in our communities. On a macro level, imagine the effect of this shift would have on eliminating fear, hate, war, poverty and improving the relationships between the nations in our world. We might have the opportunity to collectively create a world where we all have the opportunity to flourish.

I believe that being understood is a beautiful thing, something we all desire, ironically life has taught me that putting our focus on understanding others is the most meaningful and quickest route to be understood. I have come to believe that understanding is the root cause of love, peace and unity.

Isn't it time for us to put our mind, heart and energy into understanding. Is it possible that this is the way our of our current painful reality?