Reality Check: How Do You Know You’ve Understood?

Do you ever feel misunderstood? I’ll hazard a guess that the answer is “yes.” If that’s true, then it’s also likely that other people feel misunderstood, too. Why?
One answer is that some communication methods are more effective than others. For example, when we speak face-to-face, both people are aware of each other’s body language, hear tone of voice, and see facial expressions. All of these factors, when combined with the spoken words, give us at least a fighting chance of understanding each other.
Compare that situation with a text message conversation. Those messages often consist of short, incomplete sentences, filled with abbreviations and perhaps the added confusion of words that have been improperly auto-corrected. The opportunities for misunderstanding are pretty high. It’s worse if you are in a low-trust environment; one where the relationship is already fragile or not well-established.
It would make sense to say that we have a better chance of understanding each other when we can provide information in several ways, such as through voice, expressions, and by using real sentences. Thus, a phone call might not be as effective as a video chat, but it could be more effective than an email or a text.
However, the overall effectiveness of a conversation also depends on the relationship and the situation. I love text messages for some communications; the convenience makes it possible to maintain connections with people that, without texting, simply wouldn’t happen. Different communication methods are appropriate for different relationships and situations.
Yet even with a face-to-face conversation in a calm setting, it is still easy to misunderstand. How do we know when we understand the person we’re communicating with?
Well, how do we know when we’ve understood other types of information? For example, in a learning environment, we often check our understanding using tests. Contrary to the perception that the purpose of testing is to annoy and create anxiety, testing can provide valuable information! Sometimes we find that we know more than we realized. Other times, not so much. Testing provides a kind of “reality check” that lets us know where we stand.
In other environments, reality steps in to let us know the level of our understanding. Did we fully understand the ins and outs of that plumbing project we took on? Turn the water back on and we’ll soon find out, won’t we?
But how do we know when we understand another person? One way to approach this is by “testing” our understanding, essentially, by summarizing the other person’s points back to them in our own words.
We could try opening phrases such as, “Here’s what I understand about your concern…” or “Let me see if I have understood what you’re saying…” or “If I understand correctly, then you would like to see…”
You might be wondering why I have chosen to focus on our understanding of others, rather than on us being understood. It’s a good question. Certainly, any of us wants to be understood. However, I think that if we can first develop consistent methods of understanding others, we’re better equipped to recognize whether we are understood.
Understanding each other is so important in relationships. While we won’t always agree, we can at least develop a clear understanding of where our differences lie. And that, at least, is a potential starting point for an improved relationship.
How do you know when you understand?

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