1 Big Idea to Think About

  • Misunderstanding is the bottleneck of human progress. Understanding each other opens up human progress.

2 ways You Can Apply This

  • Think of a recent conflict or argument and answer these two questions: What do I feel? What do I need?
  • Try and communicate these needs by stating, “I feel X because my need for Y is not being met.”

3 Questions to Ask

  • How can I more clearly communicate how I am feeling and what I need?
  • How can I help others better communicate how they are feeling and what they need?
  • Am I throwing up smoke screens when expressing my needs and feelings?

Key Moments From The Show 

  • Finding progress through understanding (3:11)
  • What it feels like to be misunderstood in one word (12:00)
  • What it feels like to be genuinely understood (12:38)
  • Understanding: The most essential life skill (13:16)
  • What do you feel? What do you need? (14:46)
  • A simple phrase that can help you communicate your needs and how you feel (17:32)
  • How to use this phrase to better understand others (18:12)
  • Recognizing smokescreens that contribute to misunderstanding (19:34)
  • How society teaches hostile communication (21:59)

Links You’ll Love From the Episode

Greg McKeown:

Welcome everyone. I’m your host, Greg McKeown. I’m the author of two New York Times bestsellers, Effortless and Essentialism. And this is the new Greg McKeown Podcast. And I’m here for this journey to learn how to understand the people who matter most to us. 

Have you ever been on a team where you felt truly misunderstood? What was it like in one word? Have you ever been on a team where you felt truly understood? What was that like in one word? Today I’m going to share a story, something I am learning, and some actionable advice so that by the end of this episode, you’ll be better equipped to understand others and be understood in return. Let’s get to it.

If you want to increase your communication skills and learn the ideas in this episode faster and put them to work more quickly, here’s the invitation. Teach the ideas in this podcast to someone else within the next 24 to 48 hours. You might be more likely to do this if you name who you will share it with, name when you will share it with them, and name where you will share it with them. 

The place is Northern Nigeria. It’s in a community of 400 people, and there are two tribes at war with each other over how many shopfronts each tribe is allowed to have at the market. And by being at war, I don’t mean a euphemism; it’s become a war. The conflict has escalated until people from the tribes have started not just fighting but actually killing each other. Out of the 400 people in the community, a hundred people have been killed since the beginning of the year in question.

A local mediator, alarmed at the violence, had worked to get all of the chiefs from both tribes to meet. It had taken him six months of gentle negotiation to get the chiefs just to agree to the meeting. And once the meeting was scheduled, he reached out to Marshall Rosenberg, the author of Nonviolent Communication, to handle this high-stakes meeting. Imagine the situation. There are 12 chiefs from one tribe. On the left, there are 12 chiefs from the other tribe to the right. 

As the meeting is about to begin, Marshall’s colleague leans over Tim and whispers an understatement of the year. He said, “Be prepared for some tension, Marshall.” 

And by that, what he meant was this, that three people who are in attendance know that their own child has been killed by someone else in the room. So of all the intense meetings any of us have ever been to, it surely pales in comparison to this.

Through all of this violence, these leaders had never sat down together. Marshall began the proceedings in this way. He said, “I’m confident that if anyone’s needs get expressed and understood, we’ll find a way to get everybody’s needs met. So who would like to begin? I’d like to hear what needs of yours are not being met.” 

Well, they didn’t know how to express their needs, and honestly, whoever does. They only knew how to express criticism and judgments. Instead of responding to Marshall’s question, a chief from one tribe just yelled loudly and angrily across the tables at the other chiefs, “You people are murderers.” 

Marshall redirected them What needs of yours And not getting met the other side came back. You’ve been trying to dominate us. They’re just screaming at each other. They are on the edge of chaos, and it’s hard to restore any sense of order.

Still, Marshall understands from decades of working in conflict resolution that even these expressions of anger are really expressions of unmet needs. So he turns to the chief who’d yelled, you are murderers and asked, “Chief, are you expressing a need for safety that isn’t being met? You have a need for safety. You would hope that no matter what’s going on, things could be resolved with non-violence. Correct?”

He said, “That’s exactly what I’m saying.” 

But that wasn’t enough. He had to be sure the chief’s needs were heard by the other side. So Marshall turns to the chiefs on the other side. He said, “Would somebody from this side of the table please tell me back what the chief said his needs were?” 

One of them screamed, “Why did you kill my son?”

Marshall intervened, “Chief, we will deal with that soon, but for the moment, would you be willing to tell me what the first chief’s feelings and needs are?” 

And he just couldn’t do it. He was so involved in making judgments of the other side that he wasn’t able to even hear their feelings and needs. So Marshall said this, “Chief, what I hear the other chief feeling is anger, strong anger because he says that he needs for conflicts, whatever they are, to be resolved in some way other than with violence so everybody can be safe. Could you say that back so that I’m sure we’re communicating again?” 

He wasn’t able to do it, but not yet. Anyway, Marshall had to repeat the message at least two more times before he heard what the other chief was feeling and needing. Finally, he was able to say it.

So Marshall continued, “Now that you hear what the needs are of the other side, I’d like you to tell me your needs.” 

One of the chiefs repeated the same judgment he’d made earlier. “They have been trying to dominate us for a long time, and we’re not going to put up with it anymore.” 

And again, Marshall had to translate that judgment of wrongness of the other side into the needs that weren’t being met. “Are you upset because you have a strong need for equality in this community?” 

He said, “Yes.” 

Marshall turned to a member of the other tribe and said, “Could you repeat that so I’m sure that we are communicating?” 

And they were not able to do it, at first. He had to repeat that at least two more times before they were able to see the other side had anger related to a need for equality that wasn’t being met. It took them about an hour to get each side clear about their needs and to get the other side to hear them. And what got in the way was just endless sparks of yelling and accusations. 

However, the moment that Marshall got both sides to hear one another, one of the chiefs jumped up and said two things. He said, “Marshall, we can’t learn all of this in one day, but if we know how to talk to each other in this way, we don’t have to kill each other.”

He understood in one hour that if they could just say what their needs were, then they could resolve their conflicts peacefully. Marshall said, “I’m so glad you could see that so quickly. We were going to suggest at the end of the day that we would be glad to train people from both tribes to use this in case other conflicts come up.” 

And he said, “I want to be one of the first to be trained in this.” 

And several others in the room also were eager to volunteer to get the training. They could see that they wouldn’t need weapons to resolve complex when they knew how to connect clearly with each other’s needs. 

I mean, what is the point here that misunderstanding needs is the bottleneck of human progress, and understanding needs, therefore, opens up human progress. Just think of how stuck they were, how much waste there was, and how much waste we have in our own lives.

I mean, if we are busy fighting each other, the essential work of our lives is not getting done. The essential relationships are certainly not being invested in with enough understanding. I think anything is possible, but without it, everything becomes impossible. Even figuring out how many storefronts you should be allowed at the marketplace becomes impossible. With enough understanding of each other. Our potential may be unlimited. 

So what about you? Have you ever felt like it was hard to make progress on a team? Or maybe it’s not on your team but between two teams in the same company? The research team and the marketing team or the marketing team and the sales team, or maybe it’s hard to make progress between you and another important person in your life. Maybe someone who’s truly essential to you, but you’re seriously at odds, and making progress is so tough cause of it.

Misunderstanding is the bottleneck of human progress. Understanding each other opens up human progress. You can read that true account of the Nigerian Chiefs in the book Speak Peace in a World of Conflict starting on page 121. It’s a book by Marshall Rosenberg. 

Now let’s come back to the questions from the beginning. Have you ever felt truly misunderstood? What was that like in one word? When I put that question out online, I was surprised by how many answers I got and how strong the emotions were that were expressed. Here are a few of their one-word answers. Betrayed, unjust, isolated, gut-wrenching, embarrassing, fearful, disheartened, suffocating, terrifying, unworthy, unvalued, triggered, hurt. 

Now contrast it. Have you ever felt truly understood? What was that like in one word? Exhilarating, transformative, mutually respected, satisfying, included, motivated to over-deliver. Empowered, liberated, successful, meaningful, supported, winning. 

I mean, that’s the difference. That’s the range of emotional contrast between being understood, feeling understood, and feeling misunderstood. This is why I often think that understanding each other is the essential habit or skill in life. And to support that, let me just go to some definitions. To understand means to perceive the intended meaning, and essential means extremely important. So to perceive the intended meaning of each other, I believe, is the most extremely important skill in life. 

Let’s just break it down. What happens when we don’t understand each other? Nothing. Nothing is possible. Our progress can come in extreme circumstances to a complete stop. On the other hand, what happens when we do understand each other? Everything starts to be possible. You can put all of that creative energy into solving problems and moving forward and making progress rather than in this constant email, massaging, trying to get just the right words, talking about each other, gossiping, putting in tremendous mental and emotional energy to demonstrate why the other side is impossible and frustrating to deal with and why we are in fact the victims of this situation while they are the villains.

Now, despite the vital nature of this skill, this habit, my experience is that most people simply do not know how to express what they feel, or what their needs are. 

Now, the moment I learn something new, I always want to try it out. I mean, almost immediately and often, my children, therefore, become the first place of my experimentation. Well, what good are children if not to be a psychological experiment? <laugh>

So when there is some conflict escalating in our home, I will intervene of late by asking them, “Okay, time out. What do you feel? What do you need?” 

And when I do that, they respond in exactly the same way every time. First, the question stops them in their tracks, it goes silent. And I think automatically, their heads just tilt down as if they’re trying to look inside of themselves, trying to figure out the answer. And that’s what’s so interesting to me here. They are arguing passionately, but they don’t know the answer to those questions. They do not know how they feel, and they do not know what they need. And as soon as they pause to think about that, the whole conversation has the possibility of changing. 

Now, how often have you been in a disagreement where you didn’t know the answers to those questions? Either. If you don’t have the clarity and courage to share what you are feeling and what you need, other people won’t know. So you will feel misunderstood. If you don’t make it safe for other people to share how they feel and what they need, then you won’t know. So they will feel misunderstood. So let me share with you a phrase that I learned from nonviolent communication. You can use it in two different ways. First, for you, I feel X because my need for Y is not being met.

Now I’m going to tell you from firsthand experience that phrase does not roll off the tongue because it’s so vulnerable. It’s so different than how we normally speak. But with practice, it can become a normalized phrase. For example, I feel angry because my need for safety is not being met. I feel impatient because my need for progress is not being met. 

But you can also use the phrase in a second way. You can use it for other people. In the midst of a conflict, you can use a brilliantly simple phrase. You can say, let me make sure I understand what you are saying. And my experience is that almost always, people will stop in their tracks, even in the middle of conflict, to let you have an attempt at doing that. And then, when you have the moment of pause, you say you feel X because your need for Y is not being met. You feel frustrated because your need for autonomy is not being met. You feel surprised because your need for consistency is not being met. You feel lonely because your need for emotional connection is not being met. Now here’s what’s marvelous about that. You don’t have to get it right; you just have to be open to their correction. But that’s so much more progress because if they’re correcting, well, no, that’s not really what I feel. I don’t feel frustrated. I feel whatever it is. And that’s not really the need that’s not being met. I think it’s this great. Now you are talking about the real subject. Now you are talking about what’s really essential instead of all of this total nonsense all around it. 

Years ago, I remember my brother Justin sharing with me an analogy from a game that we used to play when we were in middle school. Someone would haul the tennis ball, and everyone else would run. It was a game of hot rice. The aim of the game was to see how long you could last without being tagged by someone throwing and hitting you with the tennis ball. And once you were hit, you joined the team, trying to tag everyone else. In the playground. There was one massive oak tree. The trunk was so massive that you could hide behind it, making it hard for anyone to throw the tennis ball at you. But it also meant that you could get trapped there if you waited too long. So a popular technique was to run and hide behind the large oak tree, take off your coat and throw it out to the left. While you ran out to the right, the person with the tennis ball would see the coat and throw the tennis ball at it instead of at you, and you were off in a shot in the opposite direction.

Similarly, in our interpersonal communication, people often throw out smokescreens instead of saying what they really mean. So what they say often bears little resemblance to what they really think or really feel. People say I’m good when really their life is falling apart. People say, you’re driving me crazy when they mean I feel shame about how burned out I am. And there we are like the people throwing the tennis ball at the coat instead of the real issue. And as a result, we addressed the wrong issue, and what can be more pointless than that? And to make it worse, we often come out arguing in such a way that we signal to the other person how badly we might react to the real issue if they were to raise that. We have taught them to hide what’s most essential and what’s most vulnerable to them.

We have been taught how to be violent in our communication, non-essentials in our communication where everywhere, every day when we watch courtroom scenes of celebrities who have escalated conflict into international contempt, the world over mesmerized by the emotional drama, the toxic relationships being demonstrated every day in social media where people practice the art of harsh judgment like it’s an elegant skill every day in movies where violent words and acts are presented as heroic, we have been taught the art of violent conversation. We have not been taught how to communicate in the way that we’ve just been talking about. But what if we were, if we learned how to communicate like this, we wouldn’t have to kill each other anymore. We wouldn’t have to judge each other anymore. We wouldn’t have to hurt each other anymore. We haven’t learned how to do that yet, but we can Thank you really for listening to this new podcast.

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 a signed of effortless. Just send a photo of your review to info gregmckeown.com. Also, sign up at essentialism.com/negotiate. If you’d like to be part of a training for how to do this, I will facilitate the session because I’m convinced that we need facilitation and opportunity to get this wrong, to try again and get it less wrong in a safe environment. Details will follow when we’re ready to do it. Remember also to subscribe to this podcast now so that you can receive the next episode. New episodes come out on Tuesdays and Thursdays, and if you haven’t signed up for the 1-Minute Wednesday newsletter yet, you can do that at gregmckeown.com/1mw, and that’s how you’ll find free resources to further strengthen your ability to communicate what matters most to the people who matter most at the time that matters most.