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The Practice of Understanding

Often when someone we care about is distressed, we are tempted to give advice. Occasionally, this is even helpful. But the times when it is helpful are surprisingly rare. When we are distressed, our most important need is often simply to feel that someone understands. When someone understands, we don’t feel so alone, and that already begins to change our state of mind. When someone gives advice, often the advice is out of touch and reactive, and we feel even more alone than ever, as well as misunderstood.

There is neurology underlying this. When the limbic brain or emotional brain is agitated, it can’t be calmed by logic or reasoning. But when we feel understood, the agitation can begin to calm down, and we can begin to find our way, to see things more clearly and calmly.

Perhaps the reason we want to give advice is because it makes us feel better. It is difficult to enter into the experience of another’s distress, and we defend ourselves from that experience by offering our opinion, despite the fact that it so seldom helps.

To understand is a simple practice, but not an easy one. The word itself contains the notion of standing under—that is, temporarily subordinating our own concerns and fears, opening a space within us to be present to the other and to their experience, even if we are aware that there is a lot of misperception going on.

So to truly be helpful, try to understand, and to show that you understand. At least, that is my advice!

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