Are you ready? Here it comes: two books, multiple articles, hundreds of seminars and 30 years experience as a psychologist summed up in the following sentence—

Wait! Before I give you the sentence, I want to ask a few questions.

1) What do you feel when someone important to you criticizes you? Fails to follow through with agreements? Nags? Denies responsibility for their actions and ignores your requests to improve their annoying behavior?

2) Do you really want to understand why they behave that way, rather than pointing your finger and screaming, “Why did you DO that?”

3) What do you think it would take for that person to give you an open, genuine, heartfelt response?

4) Now what if this same person gave you a meaningful compliment, or did you an unexpected favor? Could this positive interaction create any anxiety?

5) Finally, what did you feel when I postponed giving you the one-sentence summary of my life’s work?

Here’s my theory: You didn’t really reflect much on the questions above. It takes too much time, and too much intellectual and emotional effort.

And that, my friend, is the foundation of what it takes to really understand another person.

So, here’s the sentence:

All the communication guidelines in the world are worthless if you don’t make the effort, spend the time and muster the courage to tolerate discomfort (yours and theirs) to understand someone’s reality, values, concerns and desires.

This is especially true for sensitive areas where you might find disagreement. Deeply understanding another person can uncover daunting problems and differences. This is why we avoid or postpone bringing up sensitive topics with spouses, children, friends, customers, prospects, colleagues or our downline.

When I am at my worst with my wife, Ellyn, I finger-point, brood, do a resentful accommodation or the ever-popular whine. These ineffective and coping strategies (which prevent deeper understandings) seem to mask an underlying pain, fear and sense of helplessness or hopelessness about a particular situation or problem.

But when I practice what I preach, I always find the deep satisfaction that comes from facing discomfort rather than avoiding it.

When I take the time to look around, I am continually inspired by people overcoming fear, impatience, pain, anger and the urge to offer easy or premature solutions. I am inspired by their struggle to increase empathy, courage and insight. To better understand others—and themselves.

This inspiration sustains me when I stretch yet again to communicate way outside my comfort zone.

What about you? What would it take to for you to really understand someone important in your life?

PETER PEARSON, Ph.D., is on the faculty of Networking University.
To learn more about relationship and communication skills,
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