The Understanding Process
The following text was submitted to NCDD by Deborah Flick of the Collaborative Solutions Group. This text was excerpted and adapted from Flick's "From Debate to Dialogue: Using the Understanding Process to Transform Our Conversations" (Orchid Publications, 1998).
This overview of the Understanding Process is intended to provide a conceptual foundation on which you can build your competency in using the process in conversations with anyone and as a facilitator, teacher, leader and team member. Experience has demonstrated that the Understanding Process is valuable as a mode of prevention as well as intervention in existing conflicts and is being used effectively in:
- Improving public conversations about controversial issues
- Team and community building
- Leadership development
- Creative approaches to problems and issues
- Working with groups as well as interpersonal dyadic communication
Please see From Debate to Dialogue: Using the Understanding Process to Transform Our Conversations for case studies and examples.
Because it?s easier to learn something new when it is anchored in the familiar, Conventional Discussion (the modus operandi of our Debate Culture) will be used as a springboard for learning about the Understanding Process. Although both describe self-reinforcing processes about how we think and how we communicate with each other and ourselves, they cut very different paths to distinctly different outcomes - debate and dialogue, respectively.
Inside Understanding and Conventional Discussion
The outcomes of the Understanding Process and Conventional Discussion are different. Whereas the former leads us into dialogue and understanding, though not necessarily agreement, the latter more typically fosters arguing and polarization.
Human beings are ?meaning makers.? We need to find meaning in life and to make sense of our experiences. We do that by interpreting things through the use of language and narratives that implicitly contain within them our most basic assumptions, what we take for granted about what is ?true? and ?real.? That is, we weave stories about how things are or should be, about what things mean to us. We don?t necessarily state them outright. In fact, for the most part we can?t say what they are because they are so much a part of us that they are invisible to us. Nonetheless, we can choose to pay attention and listen for how we interpret experiences, for what things mean to others and ourselves both in what is spoken and implied. This approach is at the heart of the Understanding Process.
Let?s compare and contrast the following components of both the Understanding Process and Conventional Discussion:
- The premise
- The goal
- The inherent attitude or mental (and feeling) state
- The focus or what one specifically pays attention to
- The behaviors including: listening, inquiring and advocating
- The role one assumes relative to other people
Conventional Discussion is grounded in the assumption that in any given situation there is only one right answer, usually one?s own. From this standpoint, it makes sense that you should try to assert your point of view by persuading others to see things the way you do. Or, if you haven?t as yet formed an opinion, you seek out The right answer discarding all other possibilities as being wrong.
The Understanding Process, on the other hand, assumes that there are multiple, valid perspectives on any given matter, yours included. No one person or point of view contains the whole ?truth? about the matter at hand. Therefore instead of searching for the right answer we explore multiple perspectives, what they mean from different points of view, and the interrelationships among them. As a client delightedly commented,
"Oh, I get it! It?s as if we all have a piece of a large jigsaw puzzle and mistake our piece for the whole puzzle. I argue and debate, trying to convince others that I have the whole picture. Using the Understanding Process helps me to see that my piece of the puzzle is both valid and limited. When I get curious and inquire about the other puzzle pieces, other people?s perspectives, I see a new, fuller picture."
As this client observed, each perspective is a different aspect of an overall truth that is found in the interrelationships among the individual pieces. Thinking and conversing in ways that are helpful to discovering such truths are necessarily inclusive in that no point of view is left out arbitrarily or because we disagree with it. This is a complex process that requires restraint. In order to reap its potential we need to ?fight the itch for closure.?
When using the Understanding Process our goal is to seek deliberately to explore multiple perspectives by understanding another person or group, from their point of view. In contrast, when we are engaged in Conventional Discussion our goal is to convince the other person, to win or to be right, or at least to find the right answer. We want to be right and want others to agree with us. That means, of course, that someone loses and is wrong. Needless to say, to win and to be right can feel deliciously righteous! However, despite our apparent victory, the question, ?What have I really won?? often doesn?t have a very satisfying answer. When you feel like attacking, it?s helpful to ponder the words of the Buddha, ?In a battle, the winners and the losers both lose.?
Pulitzer Prize winning playwright, August Wilson, speaks about understanding another person on their own terms without denying or devaluing his own ?truth.? He was asked how he was able to express the reality of other African Americans whose experiences have been very different from his own. He said:
"You have to listen. In the larger society, we are not listening to our kids, black or white. You may have to struggle to understand it because it?s different from the world you know. For instance, if I go and listen to rap, what these kids are doing these days is different from what I did as a teenager, and the way they?re working out their social conduct is different from the way we did. So I simply say, ?Okay, I?ll buy in on your terms, let me see what?s going on with you.'?
August Wilson seeks to understand others on their terms. And, although he acknowledges and honors his own experience as a teenager, he doesn?t hold it out as the right or best experience. He doesn?t try to convince teens to see things his way, and doesn?t put them down when they maintain their own point of view.
Attitude and Focus
Attitude and focus are so closely linked that we will explore them together. Attitude refers to the mental position or feeling we have in response to the person we are talking with. The attitude called for in Conventional Discussion is evaluating and critical. The question, ?What?s wrong with this picture?? provides a vehicle to focus the attitude of critical evaluation toward what another person or group is saying and doing. Constantly assessing whether we agree with someone or not, whether we like or dislike them and what they say - and if it is stupid or smart, right or wrong - is inherent in our Debate Culture.
In contrast, the underlying attitude of the Understanding Process is openness and genuine curiosity. Even if our initial, seemingly automatic response is to zero in on what is wrong, we can consciously note our critical judgment and then, for the time being, move it to the back burner in our minds. In the foreground of our awareness we focus our attention on: ?What?s new? Of value? What can I learn?? Such questions are invitations to attend deliberately to what we don?t yet understand. They lead us to inquire about the meaning that ideas, experiences and beliefs hold for people with views and values very different from our own, including ones we find objectionable. These questions also help us to develop an appreciative eye, an eye that searches out novelty and possibility.
Three behaviors - listening, asking questions and advocating your point of view - are central to both the Understanding Process and Conventional Discussion. However, despite the fact that the behaviors have the same names, they are carried out very differently. Let?s take a look.
When we listen in Understanding Process mode we accept at face value what another person is saying as being true and real for that individual. Even if it?s contrary to our own beliefs and values, we listen to understand how it makes sense to and has meaning for the speaker. In contrast, when we believe we?re right and they?re wrong we accept nothing that someone else says at face value. It is as if we say ?No? to what we hear from the other and scrutinize it for its presumed flaws. Again, while this approach may have merit in specific contexts, the kinds of questions we are concerned with are:
- In this instance, does this way of interacting help to build trust, to understand each other, to respectfully explore our differences?
- Does this way of talking help us achieve our desired outcome or does it take us further away from where we want to be?
Listening with Conventional Discussion ears generally means waiting to talk and talking more than we listen. In those moments when we do have our mouths closed, our ears are tuned to uncovering errors and flaws in what the other person is saying. As they speak we plan our rebuttal. Listening is downtime that we use to plan what we are going to say next. For example, while someone else is speaking, have you ever heard your internal voice saying things like: ?That?s not right. No, no, no, it?s not like that, it?s like this. That?s so stupid I can barely stand to listen to it.?? Or perhaps you can recall moments when you tune in and out of the conversation catching just enough of what someone is saying so you can return to the real work at hand, developing your counter argument point-by-point.
By contrast, when using the Understanding Process, we listen to understand without judgment or criticism. To the extent criticizing is habitual, suspending judgment in this way can be difficult at best. It?s challenging to stop doing something - judging, for example - without having something else with which to replace it. Instead of listening judgmentally we can choose to listen to another person with a sense of wonder and curiosity. To do this it helps to get in touch with the part of us that is curious and willing to understand people from a fresh point of view. Paying attention to people in this way necessarily means that we listen more than we talk, and that we listen for their story. Listening for someone?s story, rather than listening to their story, requires being fully present. It means respectfully attending to the meanings expressed in what is and is not being said. Being completely present to another person requires giving them your undivided attention.
At this juncture you might be wondering, ?If we don?t make judgments, how do we know what is right and wrong? How do we make decisions?? I find it useful to draw a distinction between judging and discerning. Some of us live in a chronic judgmental state of mind. This kind of knee-jerk reaction is harmful to each other and us. It keeps us separate and distant from each other and closes us off from the new and unfamiliar.
On the other hand, we need to be able to discern when necessary based on values and principled criteria to which we have given careful consideration. This is essential to being ethical and living with integrity and self-respect. The Understanding Process in no way interferes with this. If anything it enhances it by providing us with a means of exploring and clarifying our values and beliefs in depth.
How can we handle our reactions when we are listening to someone else? Alternatively we can use our reactions as a signal to ourselves to reflect instead of immediately reacting by speaking the first thought that comes to mind. Reflecting begins with simply noticing one?s reactions without adding additional energy to them. For example, in reaction to what someone is saying, your stomach tightens and you feel pierced by a flash of anger. Rather than fuel your reaction with thoughts like, ?I knew it. They?re all alike. Stupid and narrow-minded,? other options can be chosen. After noting your reaction you can acknowledge to yourself that you have a different point of view from the other person. That?s okay, because within the Understanding Process there is no premium placed on agreeing. The point is to acknowledge your reactions, in this case anger and frustration, without allowing them undermine your ability to stay present with what is actually going on in the conversation.
Joan Tollifson, in Bare-Bones Meditation, describes the challenge our intense reactions present to us. Tollifson, a lesbian, was listening to someone who held strong anti-gay beliefs. She said:
"I hear (what they are saying as) all the anti-gay attitudes and actions that ever existed. I remember the gay people I know who were killed because they were gay...Anti-gay attitudes (particularly in powerful social institutions...) do lead to acts that do kill people and that came close to killing me. But in actual fact, my life was not threatened by hearing (what this person was saying). (My) feelings of hurt and anger and defensiveness made it more difficult to hear accurately what was said...and, this...makes it harder to respond intelligently. Is it possible to see that anti-gay attitudes are hurtful without interpreting them as the deliberate acts of a free agent, aimed at me personally? Hatred...and prejudice don?t come out of open listening and love...They come out of conditioning, fear, ignorance and hurt. When we hear them spaciously, with interest and compassion rather than with hatred and blame, it breaks the cycle of violence, attack and defend. It creates space for change. Because when someone thinks I?m an aggressive, mean-spirited jerk, I?m more likely to behave like one. We create each other."
When not listening, what are we doing when we are talking? In a nutshell, we are doing some variation of asking questions or expressing our point of view. As is the case with listening, these behaviors look and feel very different from within our two constructs.
Usually, making inquires in Conventional Discussion mode sounds more like interrogating, in which we ask questions in order to challenge the other person or to support our own position. Recall that the intention of this process is to convince, win, or be right. Inquiries made in the interest of this goal, no matter how congenial the tone of one?s voice, can take on the confrontational quality of a cross-examination.
To illustrate this point, let?s look at an example from a TV news-talk program. The topic was the medical use of marijuana. One of the moderators who opposed the medical use of marijuana asked the guest to describe his experience of smoking marijuana to quell the nausea of chemotherapy. The guest did and explained how smoking marijuana was the only thing that helped him. The moderator replied, ?Your personal testimony is very effective. But you and I both know it?s not scientific evidence, don?t we??
On the other hand, we can ask questions to deepen understanding about what something means to someone else. We also inquire in order to reveal and explore assumptions, both our own and the other person?s.
Returning to the interchange above, how could the moderator respond using the Understanding Process? She could say, ?Your story is very compelling. However I have concerns and questions, and I would like to hear your thoughts about them. I?m uncomfortable substituting individual experience, or anecdotal evidence for scientific research. What are your thoughts about this? Also, marinol, a form of the active ingredient in marijuana, has been isolated and can be prescribed legally. Did you take marinol and, if so, what was your experience with it?
Notice the difference? In the first situation the moderator cuts her guest down and invites him to duel. In the second, she expresses her concerns with her guest?s comments and asks questions of genuine interest that have the potential of deepening understanding and sorting out nuances.
To advocate means to recommend or maintain a cause or an idea. At first glance, it is easier to see how advocating is integral to Conventional Discussion, but how does it apply in the Understanding Process? The quality and depth of dialogue hinges to a large degree on participants bringing their whole selves to the interaction. That includes speaking one?s truth. Martin Buber, an influential twentieth century philosopher of ethics and religion, is very clear on this point, ?If genuine dialogue is to arise, everyone who takes part must bring himself (or herself) into it. And that also means that he (or she) must be willing on each occasion to say what is really in his (or her) mind about the subject of conversation.? Buber goes on to offer a cautionary tale about how quickly life-affirming, true dialogue is killed when advocating (and inquiring) takes on the qualities of debate:
I had a friend whom I account as one of the most considerable men of our age. He was a master of conversation, and he loved it, his genuineness as a speaker was evident. But once it happened that he was sitting with two friends...The conversation among the men soon developed into a duel between two of them (I was the third). The other ?duelist?...was (also) a man of true conversation...The friend whom I have called a master of conversation did not speak with his usual composure and strength, but he scintillated, he fought, he triumphed. The dialogue was destroyed.
Also recall the premise of dialogue, in any given situation there are multiple, valid answers and perspectives, including one?s own. From this standpoint when we express points of view we deepen understanding of the issues at hand and learn more about what they mean to all involved.
For example, combining inquiring and advocacy, one could say, ?As I understand you, and let me know if I?m wrong, making sure abortion is safe, legal and available to women is important to you because doing so supports women?s bodily integrity, a value that you hold very dear. I share your commitment to valuing women?s bodily integrity. However, I oppose abortion except under the most extreme of cases, like rape or incest. From my point of view making abortion illegal supports women?s bodily integrity. Because, for example, abortion by its very nature is invasive and destructive to women. Please help me to understand how, for you, making abortion illegal would violate women?s bodily integrity.?
In contrast, the aim of advocating and inquiring in Conventional Discussion is not to deepen understanding, but to reinforce our own position, ultimately to ?triumph. ? Indeed, from this standpoint, it would not be smart to open the door to discovery unless we knew ahead of time what was behind the door and how to ?attack it? if it got out. Thus advocating involves asserting our own position, challenging the other person?s evidence and proof, and justifying our position and/or ourselves. Our own assumptions are taken as self-evident truths to be defended, not presuppositions to be openly examined. The other person?s assumptions are, however, fair game. Exposing limits, distortions and inaccuracies of their assumptions are useful ways of advocating our position. Undermining the other person?s assumptions reinforces the rightness of our own position.
Given this nature of advocacy and inquiry let?s revisit the previous example and see what it might look like: ?No. You?re wrong. Legal abortion does not support women?s bodily integrity. You don?t even know what bodily integrity means. Making abortions illegal supports women?s bodily integrity. Even a child can see this.?
A more polite version might sound like this: ?I?m sorry to say that legal abortion does not support women?s bodily integrity as you claim. Actually abortion does just the opposite, it demeans women. Anyone can see this.?
Notice that Conventional Discussion can be polite as in the second example above. It does not require put-downs or sarcasm, although it does invite such behavior. In either case, however, it still fractures and destroys genuine dialogue.
In the Conventional Discussion Process we assume one of two roles, the devil?s advocate or the truth sayer. As the devil?s advocate, we take an opposing point of view. ?No, it?s not like that, it?s like this.? All of us at one time or another have played the role of the devil?s advocate. A sure way to increase the energy level in almost any interaction with someone is to take the opposite view. It can be an entertaining party game. Sometimes we play the role of the devil?s advocate just for fun, sometimes to try to learn something and sometimes because we feel strongly about defending a belief. Some of us always play the devil?s advocate; in other words, it?s our style. People for whom playing the devil?s advocate is a habit may find themselves locked into debates, falling into arguments and wondering how they got there. Furthermore to the extent that playing the devil?s advocate is a familiar habit, being in the role of walking in the other person?s shoes may be disconcerting at first. Without the tension and contentiousness of debate it may feel like nothing is happening or that one is losing.
As the truth sayer we are committed to asserting the rightness of our perspective, defending it from attack and, hopefully, convincing others to ?see the light? as we do. In this role we genuinely believe in the rightness or superiority of our point of view, unlike the role of the devil?s advocate, which does not necessarily require that we believe deeply in what we are arguing for. As a result, our stake in being right and persuading others to concede is very high. Infused with a sense of urgency, we intensify our behaviors to make our case. Although we may feel we are fighting the good fight, undertaking this role can unwittingly lead to feeling trapped. It seems that the more strongly we propound our position the more we feel compelled to persist in order to avoid losing face. Thus, we can find ourselves spiraling into a deeper entrenchment with fewer and fewer avenues for escape.
As with the role of the devil?s advocate, those who easily adopt the truth sayer role may also find walking in the other person?s shoes challenging. From the standpoint of the truth sayer, the very act of trying to walk in someone else?s shoes can be experienced (or be perceived by others) as surrendering the rightness and superiority of their beliefs. This, of course, strikes at the very heart of the truth sayer raison d??tre.
In the Understanding Process, we attempt to walk in someone else?s shoes as we try to understand them from their standpoint. We go along with them on the path of their choosing because we want to understand them from inside their experience. We adopt the attitude of an explorer, thriving on discovery, and assuming this role in no way requires us to surrender our own beliefs. In fact, the more deeply we know ourselves and the more confidence we have in our own beliefs, the more readily and openly we are able to talk with others about meaningful differences of experience, values and beliefs.
Buber, paraphrased by Freidman, speaks to this very thing:
Experiencing the other side means to feel an event from the side of the person one meets as well as from one?s own side. It is an inclusiveness which realizes the other person in the actuality of his being.
At this juncture I want to draw a distinction between what it means to understand and to be understanding. When we walk in someone else?s shoes our intention is to comprehend their circumstances, experiences and worldview. By so doing we may or may not approve of, agree or empathize with what they are saying or doing. The Understanding Process does not require that you give up your circumstances, experiences or worldview in order to deeply comprehend theirs. It does not demand that you be understanding or empathic. Although this may occur and genuinely being in dialogue may make its occurrence more likely, it is not a required outcome.
In contrast, to be understanding connotes making allowances for someone or something. Sometimes being understanding is what?s called for. For example, a friend who was going to house-sit for you while you are on your dream vacation, breaks their leg the day before you were to leave on your trip, and is unable to house-sit. Either you don?t go on vacation or, at the last minute, try to find someone else. But you likely don?t think of your friend as having betrayed you by breaking an agreement around which you had planned your trip. Indeed you probably feel empathy for the unfortunate plight of your friend and disappointment because of your predicament. You are understanding and make allowances for the change in plans because of the circumstances.
On the other hand, being understanding in situations in which it is uncalled for conjures images of martyrdom. For example, let?s say that on the day before you are going on vacation, your friend tells you that they have changed their mind; they are unilaterally breaking the agreement. They are not going to housesit for you because they?d rather do something else. In this instance being understanding would mean making allowances or excuses for your friend leaving you high and dry at this late date. ?Oh, never mind, it?s okay.? This doesn?t seem to be respectful of yourself or them.
Interestingly, however, one could still use the Understanding Process in this situation. You could inquire as to how it is possible for your friend to do this with an apparently clear conscience. ?Help me to understand this.? Also, you could advocate your point of view in the matter by offering your perspective on their behavior and what it means to you. This could be done without digressing into an argument in which one of you declares victory over the other. For example, you could say, ?I really don?t understand how you can break your commitment to me, as I saw it, and then tell me I should not be upset about it. Help me to understand this. How do you make sense of this? What am I missing??
It should be noted that Understanding Process behaviors could be used in the service of Conventional Discussion. For example:
- Arguing so politely and gently it almost seems like understanding;
- Playing ?Gotcha,? by talking to a person using dialogue behaviors then attacking them after they have disclosed their real feelings;
- Asking critical, judgmental questions using seemingly sensitive language. For example, ?Help me to understand how you could have arrived at such an uninformed opinion;? and
- Acting like we are engaged in the Understanding Process but being in an argumentative frame-of-mind. For example, as we quietly listen we focus our attention on uncovering flaws in what the other person is saying.
There are also some ways in which conventional discussion behaviors can be used within the Understanding Process, provided our intention is truly to understand the other person from their stand?point. For example, suppose someone claimed smokers are drug addicts who should be condemned and ostracized from the community. From within the Understanding Process, one could ask a devil?s advocate-like question, ?What if your son smoked and could not stop? I know he is very important to you and you care about him deeply. Help me to understand how you would reconcile your feelings for him and your conviction that smokers should be shunned.? This is not an interrogation. The person asking the question is genuinely trying to understand what they see as a disconnection between the other person?s feelings and beliefs.
Key questions to keep in mind are:
- What is my intention? To win, to be right, to sell, to persuade?
- Am I responding critically and judgmentally? If so, then regardless of your behaviors, you are engaged in Conventional Discussion and dialogue will be squashed. On the other hand, even if you use what looks like Conventional Discussion behaviors, you are nonetheless engaged in the Understanding Process if you have suspended judgment and your intention is to understand someone else, to learn about their perspective, beliefs and values.
The Value of Debate
I want to clarify that I am not condemning Conventional Discussion. Essentially, Conventional Discussion is based on doubting or accepting nothing at face value by ?putting something on trial to see if it is wanting or not.? This approach is useful when used appropriately, for example, in the scientific method. This underlying principle is also at the heart of the United States system of justice. In criminal trials, for example, the defense tries to establish reasonable doubt in the prosecution?s argument.
The difficulty arises when we habitually resort to Conventional Discussion. Because it is familiar and has been useful in some circumstances, it becomes like the proverbial hammer. If the hammer is the tool to which we are most accustomed, everything is seen as being a nail in need of a hammer. Have you ever had the experience of casually talking with someone about something that seems to be inconsequential only to have it turn into a subtle tug-of-war? For example, you tell a friend you recently enjoyed lunch at the Blue Moon restaurant. They reply with, ?That place is terrible, I?ve never had a good meal there.? You reply, ?You probably were there on an ?off? day, but that is one of the better places in town. The meals and service are consistently good.? And so on. There is no big calamity here, just the lingering feeling of tension.
Another factor that reinforces our tendency to unthinkingly use Conventional Discussion is the extent to which we are exposed to it through the media. From talk radio to TV tell-it-all talk shows to print news, arguing is the favored mode of interaction. Although there are a few notable exceptions, skewering your opponent and having the last word is more highly valued than understanding the various points of view that people bring to the table. As a result, we rarely experience thoughtful conversation about issues and how they are seen and understood from a variety of perspectives. Often I have wished a commentator would simply say ?If I understand what you?re saying, you?re most concerned about privacy rights. Others focus primarily on what they see are the moral issues involved. From your standpoint, help our listeners understand your views on the moral aspect of these issues and how you see their relationship to privacy concerns.?
Is There a Place for Critical Thinking in the Understanding Process?
By now you may be wondering whether or not there is room for critical thinking in the Understanding Process. The answer is a resounding ?Yes.? It is an integral part if, by critical thinking, we mean carefully investigating ideas from various points of view and exploring their underlying assumptions. This approach to critical thinking is distinct from criticizing and judging. Whereas, the latter typically involves faultfinding, focusing attention on weak points (and delighting in pointing them out), the former seeks to do something else. Dialogic critical thinking involves deeply understanding divergent perspectives (and the people that hold them), uncovering the value they have to offer, and exploring the complex relationships among them.
The Understanding Process invites us to surface our assumptions - the building blocks of our opinions and perspectives. When dialogue flourishes, curiosity and interest prevail over faultfinding, ideas flow more easily, and our willingness to explore them deeply and non-defensively is heightened. We are inspired to ask insightful, illuminating questions as our understanding deepens. By engaging in this process, we distill the true essence of our own perspectives and express them more clearly. In this way we create opportunities for ongoing discovery and creativity typically denied when we criticize and attack.
Further Information and Assistance
For more information, consultation and training about applying the Understanding Process in a variety of contexts (cross-cultural teams and gatherings, conflicts, teambuilding, leadership, classroom-teaching, interpersonal relationships, breakdowns in communication, group facilitation, diversity and inclusion), contact:
Deborah L. Flick, Ph.D.
- Collaborative Solutions Group
- Making a World of Difference through Dialogue
Or consult Deborah Flick's book:
From Debate to Dialogue: Using the Understanding Process to Transform Our
Conversations, Deborah L. Flick, Ph.D. (Orchid Publications, 1998)
Available from: and www.amazon.com