You just don’t understand me!!
Have you heard this from a teenager in your house? Perhaps you said this when you were a teenager in your parents’ house? It’s not just teens who struggle with this lack of understanding in their families, it is a problem for most of us in our committed relationships as well.
Usually the person saying (yelling) this is convinced it is absolutely true – and the person receiving this message knows it is absolutely false.
“Of course I understand! The problem is that YOU don’t understand ME!”
Understanding is key to getting on with the people around us and yet it seems to be the hardest thing to offer someone – especially someone we care about.
A way to move beyond this stalemate position in relationships with our children, partners, or just anyone, is to get a handle on this:
Understanding does not equal Agreement
I reckon the biggest hindrance to getting on the other person’s side of the argument, and therefore to understand their message, is that we feel like we’ll be agreeing to agree with them. And we just don’t.
And it can be a not-in-a-million-years kind of don’t.
If you can allow yourself to sit with the idea that offering understanding to someone does not mean you agree with their opinion, you might be able to decrease some of the tension and maybe even get closer to them. You may be able to let go of the tight hold you’ve got on your own opinion long enough to sit with your child, partner, parent or sibling because you begin to realise that you don’t need to sacrifice your opinion to understand some else’s.
If your teen says something like, “…but everyone else is sleeping with their boy/girlfriend (going to the party, vaping, dropping out of school, venting online, gaming…)”, it doesn’t actually cost you your views or standards to get on their side of the line and offer genuine understanding.
“It must be rotten to feel like you’re the odd one out.”
“If I were you, I reckon I’d feel angry about that too.”
You just have to imagine you are them in that moment. (This will also remove the risk of sarcasm from your response). Most of us can easily transport ourselves back into our own adolescent struggles to figure out the understanding that our teens need. Imagine how things might have been different for you if your parents had offered you the understanding that you craved, even though they held a different perspective. The situation might not actually change, however the feeling that someone understands you can bring substantial relief – and lower the tension in that old parent/teen tug-of-war.
It’s the same for the other important people in our lives who seem to be constantly complaining that we just don’t understand.
“The kids have been mucking up all day because of this rain and I’m trying so hard to get all the house stuff done! Why can’t you just come home earlier?!”
How could a person offer understanding to their partner when they’re greeted with this complaint at the front door after a mad day of hard work that was also effected by rain? You might really want to assert your own truth by saying, “So you want me to just drop everything I’m doing and come home whenever you think you’re having a hard day?” Then bringing out the big guns… “You don’t know how good you’ve got it being at home all day!!”
If you can take a deep breath in, let it all out again… and then offer some understanding (sometimes called empathy), it might sound like this, “It sounds like you’ve had a really frustrating day. This weather is making it even harder than usual.” And then possibly, “Can I help you with some stuff after we get the kids into bed?”
The space in between this couple now has the potential to get warmer, in a good way, rather than escalating into the usual ‘attack and withdraw’ patterns (often known as fight and flight). Not only has person 1 felt heard and understood in their frustrations, but person 2 has created the environment to share about their own rough day later – and to be understood in return.
Of course it’s not always as simple as this to calm ourselves down, work out the other person’s message and offer understanding, but it’s not uber complicated either. Getting on the other person’s side of the line is a simple as imagining yourself there. Once you’ve got the idea that understanding doesn’t equal agreement, you can just practice and practice some more.
A personal example: A few years ago a significant birthday was coming up for me and I found I was struggling with this particular milestone unlike I had for any other year. I was unhappy with it and, instead of wanting to celebrate, I actually wanted to have a day of mourning. On the ‘big day’ I received a phone call from an elderly relative (in her 90s) wishing me all the best for the day.
“And what age are you turning today, dear?” she asked hesitantly.
“Fifty” I steadily replied, keeping in mind her own advanced age, but probably not quite hiding my own misery as much as I was trying to.
There was a small pause. “Oh, I’m so sorry”, she offered in a soft, low voice.
She understood and she offered her understanding to me. So simple and yet so powerful.
I don’t know how many times I’ve thought about that conversation, but it has been often. Of all the ‘truths’ she might have offered… “Well it could be worse dear, I’m 92!” or “Considering the alternative, you should just be grateful to be alive” or “You’ve got nothing to complain about. Wait till you’re my age…”, she chose to offer understanding instead.
All of these other responses would have been true and even valid… and would have insisted I push my actual feelings down into the place inside myself where the dark, unacceptable things live. Instead, I felt heard, understood, accepted… and the heaviness of those feelings immediately lifted.
It is the surprising result of feeling understood – that sometimes the struggle melts away. Understanding holds just that kind of power.