Yesterday’s post Update on automatic thoughts people connect with straight white men culminated with a couple questions I found intriguing:
Imagine if your entire life, every time you said you suffered, people said, “actually that’s an example of you causing others to suffer.”
How would that affect your life?
Imagine every time you said you worked hard at something, people said, “actually that’s an example of how easy your life is.”
How would that affect your life?
My recent conversations revealed them. I’ve started thinking about them. No one I spoke to answered them.
As best I can tell, answering them would take empathy, imagining yourself in other people’s shoes, and putting yourself in the background. From my perspective, I would value hearing someone speculate on the answers until they found them and I felt understood.
We know the annoyance and frustration of people misunderstanding us. In my conversation with Hara from Psychology Today, she talked about how maddening and frustrating someone misunderstanding her situation as a woman felt. You know the feeling. I know the feeling.
We love the feeling of others understanding us, especially in areas most don’t and that we care about. I would like to feel understood in this area. I suspect a number of people reading these words are asking themselves, “is this guy drifting toward white supremacy?”—the height of misunderstanding.
How to show understanding
How do you show someone you understand him or her? My book, Leadership Step by Step, gives exercises how. One counterproductive step is to say, “I understand you,” since you probably don’t. It tends to prompts the other person to think, “I’ll be the judge of that.”
What works: describe your understanding and ask the other person if you got it. Most likely they’ll say you didn’t. Ask them to clarify, restate your new understanding, and repeat the cycle—what I call the Confirmation/Clarification Cycle—until they say, “Yes, that’s it. You understand.”
I teach this exercise in my courses, seminars, and workshops. It leads students and clients to tell me it brings tears of gratitude from the people they did it with. This results happens consistently (I recommend my book!)
What I’d like as a White Man
I have never heard someone describe or even consider the experience the questions above allude to. People have presumed to know my experience, but their understanding never fit. They made me feel less understood. Combined with people countering my feelings of hurt with saying I’m hurting others and my feelings of working hard with saying I have it easy, I’ve learned to expect sharing these things would bring condescension and fear.
I would like for someone to try the Confirmation/Clarification Cycle with me regarding my life experience as a white man. They don’t have to bring tears to my eyes, but at least lead me to say, “Yes, that’s it. You understand me.”
I think they’d learn more than they’d expect. I bet they’d learn as much about themselves as about me.
I’m not going to hold my breath, though. My life experience tells me that more people will tell me my experience as if they knew it better.
Still, I’d like to feel understood on these areas. Not to be told that considering them makes them worry about me. I don’t think a woman suggesting to a man to imagine life as a woman would lead people to question her as I suspect people reading this piece might question me.
My homework to myself
I didn’t take long to realize I hadn’t tried the exercise I hoped others would do with me with anyone else either. How could I complain about others not doing what I haven’t done?
So I assigned myself the homework to do the exercise with others—to do the Confirmation/Clarification Cycle with them until they told me that I understood them.
If I’m honest with myself, I’ve at best imagined others’ experiences living with their skin colors, sexes, nationalities, and so on, but I haven’t asked others about my understanding until they told me I got it.
I expect that practicing what I want to experience from others will lead others to practice it with me. I expect to learn a lot about others, particularly in areas I thought I understood them but didn’t. I expect the exercise to make me feel humble, a feeling I’ve found effective for starting learning.
Finally, I expect that my doing it will teach me how to prompt others to do it with me.
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