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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