If You Understand, You Don't

Often, I hear people say to one another: “Yes, I understand.” This phrase can be heard in private as well as in business conversations and every time I ask myself if people reflect about what they just said.
From a neurological perspective, to understand something means to match that with what is already known by a human being. If you tell me that something has happened because the earth moves around the sun, I’ll accept that and maybe say “I understand” since this relation between sun and earth is known to me. So, as long as I use “I understand” to express that something approaching me matches something within my knowledge base, that’s ok.
If “I understand” something which is new to me, or inconsistent with my knowledge, I rather don’t understand that. Since it isn’t actually known to me, I can’t understand it, but I rather had to learn it. In other words: understanding means matching with the already known, learning means adding or changing (to) the already known.
Why should this differentiation be of interest for us? Assuming that most people use the expression “I see” or “I understand” in the way used above, we should be careful if we tell something new to somebody who answers with “Ah, I understand”. In this case, I would challenge this ‘understanding’, since either I haven’t told this person something new (opposed to what I thought) or this person hasn’t really grasped what I told him.
We know that most problems between human beings result from communication deficiencies and I’m convinced that especially this ‘understanding thing’ plays a major role by creating a pseudo atmosphere of agreement and shared assumptions, values, etc.. If we express our understanding but have – falsely – matched some potential new knowledge with our existing knowledge and by experiencing the informant bias, we consciously or unconsciously add to more misunderstandings.
I personally try not to fall for that bias by asking myself hard whether I really got what somebody just has told me. And more than once the other one reacted quite irritated when I asked him to repeat what he just said in a different way. Another good idea is to repeat myself what the other told me, what – surprise – shows that in most cases he again rephrased what I repeated. That may sound like a rather philosophical or tiring exercise but I am convinced it does not only help to understand but to learn and to enrich my personal knowledge base.

One Reply to “If You Understand, You Don't”

  1. Oh I understand. Meaning that the phrase has no meaning. That it’s just a phrase people splurt out when they see something familiar. Not a phrase of true understanding. Got it. Took me a while. Nice title, by the way.

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