1 Big Idea to Think About

  • Helping people feel understood is a higher and more important goal than just understanding them.

1 Way You Can Apply This

  • Listen with the intent to help others feel understood. Don’t jump in with advice. Simply try and validate their feelings. 

1 Question to Ask

  • Which relationship in my life would benefit most by helping that person feel heard and understood?

Key Moments From the Show 

  • Being understood is not the same as feeling understood (1:21)
  • People want to feel understood (2:31)
  • The impact of a powerful listener on feeling understood (4:20)
  • What it takes to help someone feel understood(6:54)

Links and Resources You’ll Love from the Episode

Greg McKeown:

Welcome everyone. I’m your host, Greg McKeown, and I am here with you on this journey to learn, and to understand is being understood different from feeling understood? It’s long been thought that understanding others is the key to great relationships, but this may be false. What we know now is that helping people feel understood is the key to connection. By the end of this episode, you’ll be able to better distinguish the difference and therefore shift from understanding others to helping other people feel understood, and that makes all the difference. Let’s begin.

If you want to get more out of this episode, sign up for the 1 Minute Wednesday newsletter, which is now at 165,000 subscribers, one of the fastest-growing newsletters on the web. Go to gregmckeown.com/1mw

A couple of days ago, I had a bit of a meta moment on this subject. I posted the following online. Being understood is not the same as feeling understood, and I asked people to comment. The vast majority of people agreed and shared their own insights and distinctions, but one person responded by saying, “Well, it sounds like this is just intellectual gymnastics to me. Either you feel understood, or you don’t. That’s all that matters.” 

I and others jumped in, trying to clarify the difference. I wrote to him, “I’m saying that helping people feel understood is a higher and more important goal than just understanding them.” And his response was, “I think we have to settle on me not understanding what you mean.” And I thought it was such a funny moment because here I am trying to distinguish two kinds of understanding, and he’s not understanding what it is I’m trying to say about understanding and, in fact, gives up on the attempt.

I take full responsibility for this misunderstanding and hope to do better. In this episode, the simple distinction is this. People want to be understood, and when they feel understood, everything gets better, and when they don’t feel understood, everything gets worse, but we often think that understanding someone else is the same as someone else feeling understood by us, and it’s not the same thing at all. 

This distinction was highlighted for me recently while reading an article about the importance of feeling understood in relationships. I’ll put the article in the show notes. Simultaneously, I came across an article written by Dhara Jani called How to Help Someone Feel Loved and Understood

She begins by saying that she suffered from depression for more than a year. She writes, “Many factors contributed to my depression. Of course, loneliness and lack of social support were the obvious factors, but the major contributor was that I didn’t feel understood.”

“It was a transition year for me as I’d left my corporate job to find more meaningful work that was aligned with my core values. With the time off, I started feeling and sensing how much past pain and resentments I had stored inside my heart. It was like the quieter I got, the more I heard how much of what was inside me. I felt a huge void, as if I was a failure in more than one aspect of my life.” And then she adds this quite devastating discovery, “During my depression, I felt like my family members and friends did not understand me and lacked the time, patience, or skills to listen effectively. I felt suffocated, isolated, and invisible.” 

She continues, “The universe has a weird way of working things out in life. Things appear or show up for a reason. What appeared for me was a powerful listener. Though this person was a complete stranger to me, I felt connected from the very first day when they listened so patiently and intently to my words and feelings, both expressed and unexpressed. It felt so incredible that I didn’t want to stop sharing. I emptied my entire heart, all my fears, disappointments, and pains. I released all of it.” And her description is brilliant. She says, “It was a pure, non-judgmental patient and empathic space where I got to express and feel understood. I didn’t get any solutions, advice or answers. Instead, I got thought-provoking questions. What do you really want? What makes you happy? What are you grateful for? How can you forgive? It was this powerful listening that provided immeasurable healing.” 

“It was,” she said, “the first time in my life I actually felt like I had been heard, really understood, like what I had to say made sense. I felt important and visible again.” She writes that “feeling understood is the most basic of human needs during a time of depression. It almost feels as critical as the need for air.” 

Being understood immediately shifted her perspective from feeling invisible to feeling visible, from feeling down to feeling uplifted, from feeling contracted to feeling expanded, and from feeling hopeless to hopeful. It made her rise again and take care of her basic needs. Slowly but surely, she was able to walk out of the depression with the help of powerful listening, and this, she says, has changed her life forever. 

Have you ever been in a situation where you felt like your words weren’t being acknowledged, like you were expressing yourself over and over again, yet you were being misunderstood, like you were fighting so hard to get your point across, but it only got worse? When someone listens to you well, it makes you feel accepted, understood, important, valued, and validated. It gives you a voice to help you find yourself again. It reminds you that you are not invisible or alone. 

So what does it take to help people feel understood? I really think it starts with remembering or discovering for the first time how massively important it really is. It makes me want to evoke the words of Marie Kondo. There is a life-changing magic to helping someone feel understood. I myself know of nothing more powerful, and that is because it is the key to everything else in a relationship. It is the gateway to a relationship in the absence of it. 

The word that stood out to me in the article that I was just reading to you is the word suffocated. When people have a need to feel understood, and that is everyone, and that need is not being met, the relationship will be suffocated, and it won’t matter how many other things are being done.

This is why the distinction at the beginning is so important, that just because we think we understand somebody else does not matter. If they don’t feel understood, it doesn’t really matter. A father could really care about his son, his daughter, but if that son or daughter does not feel understood, what difference does it make? As a manager, as a business owner, it may be true that you understand quite a bit about your employees or your customers, but if they do not feel understood, it doesn’t matter. 

Phillip Stanhope wrote it this way, “Many a man would rather you heard his story than granted his request.” 

Larry Barker put it this way, “Effective listeners remember that words have no meaning. People have meaning. The assignment of meaning to a term is an internal process, meaning comes from insiders, and although our experiences, knowledge, and attitudes differ, we often misinterpret each other’s messages while under the illusion that a common understanding has been achieved.” 

And one of the very first researchers on this subject, Ralph Nichols, puts it this way, “The most basic of all human needs is the need to understand and be understood.” The best way to understand people is to listen to them, to listen without judgment, to listen without advice, to listen until someone feels safe, to listen without interruption, and to keep doing it not only to the point where we understand others, which is not nothing but to continue to that more magnificent moment when people feel understood.

What is one idea you heard today that caught your attention? What is one thing you can do in the next few minutes to begin putting it into action, and who is one person who you can share this idea with within the next 24 to 48 hours? If you have found value in this episode, please write a review on Apple Podcasts. The first five people to write a review of this episode will receive free access to the Essentialism Academy. For more details, go to essentialism.com/podcastpromo. Thank you. Really, thank you for listening, and I’ll see you next time.