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Misunderstandings 101

Updated: Apr 1, 2022

Photo credit: Digital image by Shutterstock

un·der·stand - to understand (intransitive verb):

1: to have understanding: have the power of comprehension

2: to achieve a grasp of the nature, significance, or explanation of something

3: to believe or infer something to be the case

4: to show a sympathetic or tolerant attitude toward something


Holidays + Personalities = Fireworks

It's August already and as summer enters its final month, the back-to-school discussions and dilemmas are well underway. As I finally catch up on who's been where this summer on social media, I see post after post of 4th of July fireworks and family celebrations, which are nice to see after our long year of hitting the pause button.

Most posts do seem happy but, in the mix, are those about frustrations with relatives and neighbors. Haven’t we all been there? Who has an Auntie Sarcasm who has a few too many and loses what little filter she has, which sets off Uncle Know-It-All's soapbox, creating a feud forcing all bystanders to either choose sides and join in, keep quiet, or gossip in the kitchen predicting what will happen next. Ah yes... families and holidays. Misunderstandings happen all the time, even without holidays, families, or pandemics, but what really causes these misunderstandings?

My Brain + My Spouse = Eyerolls

I read about topics like relationships and misunderstandings from time to time, but what I can’t seem to find is one simple answer for their cause. According to the experts, a laundry list of potential contributors can include personality, temperament, attitude, environment, and upbringing of those involved, but the possible combinations of potential causes are endless and can be complex. I have pretty much given up on trying to simplify it.

However, several weeks ago, I recall waking up before my alarm with my brain doing its usual live streaming of 678,543+ thoughts of the day as if it was tasked to solve all the world’s problems in the next 8 hours. And without even a slight warning, I impetuously said aloud, “Is there one simple way to avoid misunderstandings and judgement?”

Feeling the soon-to-be-eyeroll coming from the person barely awake on the other side of the bed, I rolled over with my eyebrows raised high sporting my usual cheesy smile saying, “Sorry, hi, good morning honey.” Yes, welcome to my brain. If you can relate, I empathize. Thank goodness our spouses love us, because it must be so frustrating at times to be on the receiving end of a brain like ours. Let us pause though, for a moment to appreciate the awesomeness of the human brain and what it can accomplish if it's healthy and if we choose to use it.

Realizing I wasn’t about to receive an actual response to my random question and that I wasn't equipped to solve the world’s problems without my morning coffee, I rushed off to shower where my brain continued in a rather cinematic fashion.

Characters and conversation bubbles began to appear, “You’re wrong.” “Nope, YOU’RE wrong!” “You don’t understand what you’re saying.” "Whatever!” “You’re so immature.” “Why do I even bother...” (Queue the suspenseful music.) The scenario continued downstairs to the kitchen, and once I was halfway through my first cuppa joe, it occurred to me that even though I may never know how misunderstandings develop or why people choose to judge others, the thousands of thoughts of the morning presented me with an epiphany: Perhaps a solution to all societal problems comes down to one single word: understanding. Now, before you give me your eyeroll, just hear me out...

Questions + Listening = Rationale

I think it's safe to say that we often misunderstand people who aren’t like us. We question those who have differing beliefs, and it can be a challenge to build communication if they do not speak our language—whether that's actual language or love language. Have you ever been guilty of judging others for their looks or actions? Have you ever admitted to not talking to someone simply over a misunderstanding? If so, what could have happened then, had you built more of an understanding? Could you have asked more questions? Did your stubbornness get in the way? Were you more concerned with being right than saving the relationship? Raise your hand along with me if you're guilty.

I am adult enough to admit that my strong-willed personality has gotten in the way a time or two over the years. Some say I come by it honestly from both sides of my family. Some even say that it can be a positive trait at the right moment, but 'right' moments don't come by very often in my opinion. Nonetheless, I try to own my mistakes and correct the wrongs when it's worth it to do so. Through the ups and downs, I have learned that two simple steps such as asking questions and avoiding labels are very necessary to becoming a more rational—and less stubborn or judgmental human being.

If you are someone who takes the time to get all of the details before you act, then my hat's off to you. But if you tend to avoid asking questions, you should know that if you want to invest in a relationship with someone, the answers to those hard questions are literally the key to building an understanding of another person's point of view. Knowing more about what someone's past experiences have been, discovering what their motivating factors or influences currently are, or even simply learning their personality type, can offer great opportunities for a better understanding... which seems like a good start in any situation, yes?

Patience + Helpful Attitude = Understanding

I would like to offer a moment of recognition to the undervalued therapists and other mental health professionals of the world, as these are the people who ask the tough questions that force us to use our brains differently in order to gain an understanding of the 'whys.' I believe the world needs more of these professionals who provide much-needed perspective, sympathy and sometimes empathy if the therapist can relate to the situation. Like any other professional providing a service, you must weed out the jaded or biased ones, but once you find the one that fits... I digress, my apologies. Let's go back to how helpfulness builds understanding.

I find that people who have a helpful attitude tend to ask a lot of questions. These persons are searching to find the best way to help. They believe patience is a virtue and are patient with everyone around them.

Think for a moment... do you know anyone who fits this description? If not, have you been around inquisitive toddlers? Not only do they ask a zillion questions, but they often want to help you with every single thing you do. If you answer their questions in a way that helps the child build an understanding of the world, then you are actually helping us all by creating a world of smarter problem solvers, so thanks.

Your Choice = Consequences

You have two choices, however. You can choose to not answer their questions or perhaps answer in a way that is unhelpful or untruthful. "Because I told you so!" is probably not helpful and untruths always lead to negative consequences in the future.

I find it interesting how this simple choice can greatly impact a child's learning and I also find it incredibly frustrating when grown adults choose to be unhelpful or apathetic when it comes to dealing with others. Why be this way? It is too much work? Does it come down to maturity?

I'm desperately trying to understand so I continue to ask the questions. It's still a work in progress, but all I know is that no one told me adult relationships can sometimes require even more patience than dealing with the toddler brain, and we all know adults who can definitely behave like toddlers. Just know that the choice you make in any situation can lead to a major consequence that's good or bad. This brings me to my next formula in my hypothesis...

Laziness + Ego + Fear = Misunderstanding

Like toddlers, adults can be a little self-absorbed and immature. They can fold their arms and stubbornly say, "Nope, not doing that!" And the more I observe society, the more I am convinced that along with this potential immaturity and laziness, is ego and fear that get in the way of true understanding.

If one chooses to be lazy by not asking questions, then their point of view gets to remain unchanged. This in turn leads one to believe that they are right, and that the other person is wrong. Isn't it safe to say then, that this immaturity and lack of motivation promotes a lack of knowledge (which could be helpful), and may therefore feed the misunderstanding, that ultimately leads to a conflict? Again, I can't help but think that a better understanding of others is the key to all things here, but it takes actual questions to get there and there are so many individuals in the word who simply believe they are always right or care too little to ask the questions.

And as far as fear goes, I've read it's not typical fear like a fear of spiders or snakes, but more of a fear of being wrong or being embarrassed about the error in judgement. So fear is yet another obstacle in building an understanding with others. What if the other person's perspective makes more sense than yours? I suppose that’s pretty scary to admit because who wants to admit they could be wrong?

Listening = Understanding + Validation

So how do we get to the point of overcoming the fears and stubbornness in order to value relationships over correctness? I suppose if the relationship is worth it, you do the hard work, which means you simply ask the hard questions and go from there. But don't forget that if you choose to ask a question, it does require you to listen quietly and patiently in order to hear the content of the other person's answers instead of preparing the next point of your argument while they speak.

Lastly, I suppose you follow up with more constructive conversation and actions to prove you were actually listening. Seems pretty simple, yes? Not always. We all know that some relationships are super challenging and the underlying issues can be more about the other person than it is about you and your perspectives.

If you've tried meeting in the middle to no avail it is therefore arguably healthy (according to self-care experts) to cut some ties or to take a break, if needed. (Queue the Serenity Prayer.) Hopefully the majority of your relationships won't fall into this category, but good for you for setting boundaries as needed for your own mental health if you must do this.

The Point ≠ Pointing Fingers

The whole point of this lengthy blog is not to point fingers at anyone or to make anyone do word math (eeew, yuck). In 2020 I took a long, hard look at myself and decided that I wasn't doing enough of the asking. I knew that there were many things I disliked about how society was behaving, and instead of getting mad about it, I decided to try and understand 'why.'

My distaste for certain things and certain people has led me to begin researching topics that interest me most, such as injustices. I definitely want to be a part of the solution instead of being a bystander feeling helpless so I read… a lot.

Among some of the topics I research are ageism, racism, and sexism. I continue to dig deeper into cultures and history as well. In order to learn more about the stories of those who have survived discrimination, I cruise through movies and documentaries, gather online resources, or listen to podcasts when I have a few moments to spare. Trainings via webinar are also informative. Books and people of course are amazing resources as well, so believe me when I say that it is all out there if you have questions and the desire to learn something new.

Solution = More Validation = A Happier World

I've learned a lot about the topics mentioned above and in addition to those, I've also learned about those living with disabilities, those believing in different religions, and those who identify as LGBTQIA+. Through researching, interviewing, and observing, I have built a better sense of acceptance and have only just begun my journey. What I've learned so far is this:

  • There is a lot to learn about people if you just ask questions.

  • Some people want to be heard, simply because it helps them feel valid and that they matter.

  • Upstanders and those who advocate are undervalued and should be acknowledged more often.

  • Q & A is the first step to building an understanding of someone who may not be like you.

  • There are steps to being someone’s ally.

  • Allyship is not the same as advocacy.

I remember this quote: “For from the error of not knowing, or understanding, what sin is, there necessarily arises another error, that people cannot know or understand what grace is.” If you do not know the author of this particular quote, then today might be a good day to look it up. You have the choice to look it up here... or not. No matter what you choose, thanks for taking ten minutes of your time to read this today. Best of luck in your journey to understanding and less conflict.

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