The Difficulty of Understanding Others

How often has a friend said, “I just don’t understand him.” Sometimes the buddy promises one thing and does another. Perhaps he repeats mistakes time and again. Maybe he picks foolish friends or has crazy ideas.

With all life’s opportunities, a workable understanding of beings who share our basic physical appearance, language, and desire for happiness should be a cinch.

But we don’t manage that, do we?

Indeed, we go off the track in lots of ways.

Assuming we prefer to get better at perceiving the peopled planet as it is, here are some “outside the box” ideas for you to mull over.


Each of us claims personal insight, a slippery skill because we have blind spots. No one manages to figure out how to recognize himself as others evaluate him, at least not to the same extent.

Beginning with an incomplete grasp of our makeup, our part in relationships will not be fathomable in all aspects. Therefore, our best attempts to interpret acquaintances’ words and deeds can be off the mark.

Put into other words, imprecisions of our self-understanding hamstring our appreciation of human nature. Our species possesses ingenuity, intelligence, and intuition, but these qualities are placed within the messiness of each person’s awareness. 

No one has lived any life but his own. Thus, our experience is the model from which we try to discern the lives of others.

All of us make an uncountable number of choices. As Mark Twain said, “It is a difference of opinion that makes horse races.” Boy, we have differences of opinion, wheelbarrows full.

Unthinkingly, we put our ideas and choices into a “This Makes Sense Library” lodged in our brain. The next fellow does too. Everyone owns one such compilation of bright and not-so-bright ideas, and none of the libraries are identical.

No one takes offense if contrasting decisions, preferences, or alleged knowledge involve ice cream flavors. Nor do we give such minor considerations much thought. 

Not so for differences that pertain to where to live, who we love, the value and proper use of money, opposing political affiliations, or our favored deity. These dissimilarities might be troubling.

Our evaluations often assume we are logical folks. Seen through our eyes, it soon becomes apparent that when the other fellow differs too much from our point of view, he is the cause and might be a problem.

Generally, women and men are born with a need to think well of themselves or, at least, rank themselves above the bottom of any list. For example, a person chosen for the baseball team after everyone else may soothe himself by remembering contrasting talents that are superior to those picked earlier.

Such beliefs make life livable and not a permanent state of chagrin. There are limits to our self-persuasion, but few are without the capacity to boost their status a bit, at least in their mind.

Those souls walking on two feet also do an excellent job of rationalizing their behavior. To think you are a bloody mess — subject to the whims of emotions or actions you come to regret — creates greater unhappiness than most of us can endure.

Moreover, we overrate our rationality. We think our hold on reason renders us more clear-thinking than we are.

Jonathan Haidt, a social psychologist, likens man to a Rider who sits on the back of an Elephant. The person on top believes he is in charge of navigating this two-creature team. 

The little dude represents our analytical or rational side, while the colossal pachyderm plays the role of our powerful emotional component.

Chip and Dan Heath describe the relationship between these two:

Perched atop the Elephant, the Rider holds the reins and seems to be the leader. But the Rider’s control is precarious because the Rider is so small relative to the Elephant. Anytime the six-ton Elephant and the Rider disagree about which direction to go, the Rider is going to lose. He’s completely overmatched.

Despite the data supporting the description of these contending parts of man, few of us think we (the logical Rider) are at the mercy of the Elephant.

When faced with strong emotions about politics or religion, the data support the almost instantaneous flight of our analytic capacity. Feelings triumph with speed, while our rational side makes up reasons for our decisions almost as fast.

At the end of this match between rationality and irrationality, irrationality wins, but rationality thinks he has won and might not consider his emotional side a profound influence.

By the way, I realize you believe you are the exception to this formulation. Sigh…

All of the above leaves us in the following situation.

If we cannot bridge our divergence from the other, we become more likely to call him mixed up, stupid, or evil. Our self-evaluation, however, remains more or less intact. Unless we suffer from a compromising psychiatric condition, any questioning of our part in the world of “us and them” is minimized.

By this, I mean we find our internal mental condition more functional than someone else’s. Our self-protectiveness finds a way to comfort us whenever it can, except when the alarm bells ring and signal danger is ahead.

If our counterpart is seen as alarming, we tend to classify him as bad in his entirety.

The more troubling the differences we perceive between ourselves and the other guy, the harder to fathom why he thinks and acts as he does.

Condemning him is easier than understanding him.

Thus, we achieve reassurance if we think he and those like him are the sources of much misery.

Holding tight to this impression is simpler (though not easy) than reconsidering the possibility of our role as a contributor to the difficulty.

For all the evidence of kindness, courage, sacrifice, creative genius, inspiration, and medical advancement, few would doubt that we can also be our own worst enemies. You need only think of war, genocide, deceit, betrayal, religious persecution, slavery, and our susceptibility to conspiracy theories.

On balance, humans are well-rationalized, which is better for us. Reality offers perpetual discomfort if one is always looking at oneself, giving microscopic attention to our every thought, and wondering whether they could or should be otherwise.

On the other hand, if we desire fewer wars, an absence of discrimination, reduced political friction, a liveable climate, and well-functioning democracies, it might be helpful to get past some of our self-delusions. 

The pain of seeing ourselves would be part of the cost.

I’m not suggesting the people who we find challenging are correct in their judgments and behavior or that they are pure and we are not. Still, we have encountered the only “enemy” we can take on daily every time we face the mirror.

It won’t be easy for you or me to do this.

“We have met the enemy, and they are us,” as Walt Kelly added to the fund of written wisdom in his Pogo comic strip in 1970.

Sorry, but the store where you can purchase this kind of self-awareness charges enormous prices and offers no free lunch.

Nonetheless, I wish I had the address.


The top cartoon is called “A Misunderstanding.” It was the work of Samuel D. Ehrhart and came from Puck Magazine on February 20, 1901. The second image of “A Little Misunderstanding in Gdansk” was photographed by Artur Andrezej. Finally comes “Face Off” by Aaron. All are sourced from Wikimedia Commons.


When Words Fail — In or Out of Therapy

I recently reread All Quiet on the Western Front in a class I take. The group consists of bright, well-read folks. Thoughtful to a fault.

I say that because, to me, the better you are with words, the more likely you will try to use them to explain experiences beyond description. Yet psychotherapy is about the fullness and meaning of those incidents and one person’s effort to convey them to another.

Even the name of the novel we completed shows how communication can fail. The translation from the German is wrong.

Erich Maria Remarque entitled this tale of World War I awfulness, Nichts Neu im Westen. I grasp enough Deutsch to tell you it means, Nothing New in the West.

“Nothing new” — just a few more deaths, more pointless battles over a space of — say — one hundred yards, traded between sides, over and again.

But what I’ve written here is insufficient and that is my point. The meat of the book, as moving as it is, attempts to describe trench warfare, death piled on meaningless death; heroism and stupidity and the loss of hope. Because I read “All Quiet,” I might now know something about war, but I do not know war.

In the seminar we struggled to understand. My noncombatant friends and I squandered many words attempting to think through something having little to do with thought. We were all touched by the story, sure. This wasn’t enough.

A wartime example might help, though still fail to achieve understanding. My wife’s father manned a supply truck during WWII. His partner in the task shared the job of transporting needed goods — military hardware, food, and other necessaries — to the front. They spent over a year side-by-side and became best friends.

On a day no different than hundreds of others, talking and laughing and complaining and telling stories as they always did, a sniper’s bullet killed Tom Henek’s buddy. Covered with the blood of a man he loved, the soldier who would sire my wife drove on.

Those are the facts. The single survivor — the man who relived the murder in post-traumatic dreams — himself died long ago. No one is present to add or subtract from the description. We civilians lack the conceptual and affective adequacy to approach what the lived-experience was like, only analogues from our own terrors and near-misses.

A movie might help, perhaps the opening of Saving Private Ryan, however much falling short.

What can we impart of joy? The birth of a child, sex, whatever is your happiest memory? Those without children won’t comprehend. The solitary who never made love “in love” can’t enter the realm of the incommunicable. Poor creatures holding only gray memories of a rocky life might find their best day difficult to recall as a pulsing, radiant thing.

Yet this is what therapists do: try to understand those with a different history from their own.

Healers can’t get inside of you. They listen to the inflections, depend on the definitions they hope you share. Add your eyes, the ache in your voice, and body language. No wonder you are frustrated at times. No wonder they are frustrated at times. Nor am I including the secrets you’ve not told or the knowledge of yourself you don’t possess.

There are people in our lives — if you are like me — about whom you will learn more some time after not seeing them. I’m talking of a forest and trees phenomenon. We need to be close-up to make out some things. The rest takes form at a distance. Such perception is of little use to the departed, but the one who stumbles upon a new depth of insight is enlarged in a way I also cannot describe.

Trust me — “trust me about this” — is now a phrase that might mean a bit more to you. Perhaps you won’t be quick to trust the expression anymore. Remember, too, I’m using words to communicate; words you are encouraged to rely upon less.

Asking questions of the speaker might help him explain himself to you.


We are desperate. We wish to be understood. Do you have more than a faint sense of me, precise and perceptive in detail? To most of you I am black letters against white space on a phone or computer; perhaps a recorded voice on the Internet or a photo. In any shared real life you’d witness moments of irritation, disappointment, weariness, self-assertion, laughter and more.

No one knows the entirety of another. I haven’t told you everything, nor admitted to myself the totality of who I am.

Perhaps my tendency to answer questions truthfully is too rare a quality. Those who desire tender acceptance have no chance without frankness. Thus, I try to be frank.

Here is another consideration. Counselors often withhold the truths for which they believe their client is unprepared. Whether we are counselors or not, we are a combination of what we say and the matters we consign to silence. Listeners make assumptions about the latter with no definite idea of the unseen iceberg below the other’s visible self-presentation.

We enter relationships and conversations as if all of us — every one — wore a hair piece. An observer might detect it, but still does not perceive what is underneath.

Science fiction of the Star Trek universe offers a non-conversational way of fathoming the other: the Vulcan mind meld. Here is a completeness of intimacy to the most terrifying degree imaginable: sharing every thought, every feeling, every recollection. Imagine the holder of a pitcher pouring them into you.

I learned the unreliability of language at home. I had one honest parent and another who couldn’t bear too much truth. Therein resided the equivalent of a university education. My nature was more attuned to the former.

Forty-years after his return from the European zone of combat, I asked my dad what he recalled of his reunion with my mom. A first phone call from New York stood out. The man I loved wept reliving the moment.

Did I understand? Well, I partook of his retelling, and that was more than sufficient. If we are sympathetic witnesses to such inwardness, the two of us become closer. Patients and doctors, parents and children, friends and lovers. We don’t need to fathom everything.

I keep a scrapbook of invisible moments, often silent — a look or a touch, a smile or a tear.

The possibility of knowing sometimes depends upon the unsayable.

The first painting is called City Landscape — 1955,  by Joan Mitchell.  It is followed by Georgia O’Keefe’s White Shell with Red. Both come from the Art Institute of Chicago.

Do You Understand Me? On the Dangers of the IM

In the course of conversation, serious or casual, we often ask, “Do you understand?” The conventional wisdom tells us that if the question is followed by a “yes” answer, then real understanding exists.

I say, not so fast. Let me give you an example.

I remember treating  a family that included a son and a daughter. I don’t recall the precise ages of the children, but the boy was probably between 10 and 12, his sister much younger. I’d been seeing the family for some time when the parents came to their appointment in a state of more than usual alarm. The father first wanted to talk with me alone. He said that his son had threatened to “rape his sister.” I asked for the details, including whether the father had questioned his son as to his understanding of the word “rape.” “Yeah, I asked him whether he understood what that meant,” the father told me, “and he said that he did.” I then spoke with the son alone. This gentle but troubled and ashamed boy recounted the incident. Then I asked him to tell me, in his own words, what rape meant. And what came out was some version of “beating-up” his sister because she had been teasing him. Where had he heard the word “rape?” “On TV.”

Not that wanting to beat-up his little sister was a thing to be encouraged, but still, it wasn’t rape that he wanted to do, and everyone was pretty relieved once I explained the details to the parents. The point of this is that it isn’t as easy as we think to achieve “understanding” of what we are saying; indeed, if you think it is easy, you are probably creating a certain number of misunderstandings.

Consider how many serious attempts at communication are done in the form of email. Too many people routinely hit the “send” button before they have carefully reflected on how their message will be understood, and how they will feel about having sent that message in an hour or a day or a week.

What is the best way to be understood on any subject, and especially on a subject of importance? Be in the same room as the person with whom you would like to communicate, having first gathered your thoughts; and with the time to explain them and the opportunity to see if the other person can accurately paraphrase what you’ve said back to you. In this situation you will have several sources of information that can be helpful in making yourself understood, and are also available to inform you if your message has been received in the way that you were hoping. You will have words, of course, but also body-language, facial expressions, eye contact, tone of voice, inflections, the volume (loudness) of your speech, the speed with which you utter the words–all of these things, which you can vary as needed.

If you choose not to use face-to-face communication or simply can’t, due to circumstances of time or distance, perhaps a phone call will do. But understand that what you and your partner in conversation might be able to see has now been lost to you. Without the eye contact, body-language, and facial expressions to help you interpret the words you are hearing, the chance of misunderstanding grows.

Worst of all is the written word. True, if you have time and are a thoughtful person who is good with language, you might have added time to craft your written message that isn’t available when simply speaking in conversation. But, once the back-and-forth of an instant-message or text-message communication occurs, one usually loses the time for careful consideration that one had in the days of letter-writing. And you have lost not only the possible message-clarifying assistance of what you can see of the other person’s expressions and posture, but also all the things that a telephone still conveys in sound: inflection, emphasis, strain or ease, intensity, urgency, and so forth. Now your chance of being misunderstood has increased even more.

A very clever old book, How to Make Yourself Miserable by Dan Greenburg with Marcia Jacobs, puts it very well in Exercise #4 from a section called “Seventeen Masochistic Exercises for the Beginner:” “Write a letter to somebody, mail it, then figure out which part could be most easily misunderstood.” Greenberg wrote the book well before the days of IMs and text-messages, so one can only imagine what an update might look like given the destructive possibilities inherent in those speedy missives.

Sometimes the oldest advice is best: when you want to talk about something important or emotionally charged, take a deep breath and wait. Write if you need to (just to get your feelings out–don’t send it), talk to friends or a counselor, but take time before you address the issue to the person himself. And, when you do, if at all possible, do it face-to-face with lots of time to sort out the details. Beware of the IM and the text-message.

And if you are old enough, remember back to the Cold War days when the initials often heard in daily conversation were not IM, but ICBM–meaning Inter-Continental Ballistic Missile.

An IM can be a little bit like that, but might just blow up in your face.

Psychotherapy Humor

Hoping that the above title is not a contradiction in terms, I’ll tell you a little story.

Before I get to the funny part, however, this appeared very early in my blogging life and was ignored by almost everyone. If, after you read the story, you care to let me know why, I’d be interested. The tale is true.

First, to set the stage, I am a man of conservative appearance; quiet, thoughtful-looking, definitely not a hell-raiser. My picture, I suspect, gives this away. With that in mind …

A few year back I was treating a retired woman. She was a bit hard of hearing, but quite pleasant. I typically saw her on Monday afternoons and she always asked me what I’d done over the weekend. On one particular day, I answered this way: “Oh, my wife and I went to a tapas place.”

“A topless place!” she shrieked, almost hysterical. Well, eventually I was able to calm her down and explain to her that it was a Spanish-style tapas restaurant at which my wife and I had eaten, not a burlesque show.

But still, I’m not sure that she ever again looked at me in quite the way she had before her innocent inquiry regarding my weekend activity.

What’s a Beethovenmobile? When a “van” Isn’t a Station Wagon

Language is a funny thing. Translations can be particularly amusing.

Since I am a collector of classical recordings, I received an e-mail from a Japanese website offering a large set of discs conducted by Wilhelm Furtwängler. Furtwängler conducted lots of Beethoven, so I wasn’t surprised to find numerous performances of his music in the table of contents. But, I didn’t immediately understand why Beethoven’s name was listed as “Ludwig Station Wagon Beethoven.”

After a few seconds, the answer came to me. The Japanese translator must have taken the actual name “Ludwig van Beethoven” as it is written in Japanese and, using one of the translating devices available on the web, attempted to convert it into English. Thus, the “van” (as in a type of motor vehicle) became “station wagon.”

Is it any wonder that we humans have misunderstandings? One thing is for sure: I’ll never be able to look at a mini-van in quite the same way again.

The painting above by Joseph Karl Stieler (1781-1858) is of Beethoven ca. 1820. It is sourced from Wikimedia Commons.