“The most basic of all human needs is the need to understand and be understood.” – Ralph Nichols

Being human, we all have certain basic needs. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs outlines them quite well and encompasses all that we generally think about when it comes to what we need.

Yet one of our most basic needs, the need to understand and be understood, seldom gets much attention.

It should.

Without the ability to understand what others say or the meaning behind their words, we can miss important cues, lose out on opportunities, fail to see changes in time to appropriately react, and go off in a totally different direction. Worse, if we lack understanding, we’re more prone to selfish acts than helping others.

Similarly, without others being able to understand us, we’re often left confused, frustrated, overlooked, angry, misinterpreted, and taken for granted. We might even feel sad and depressed, particularly if being misunderstood is a constant and we do nothing to help remedy the situation.

How can we work on improving both our ability to understand others and make it easier for them to understand us? Much of the following recommendations follow a commonsense approach, yet there may be some new angles to consider.

  1. Think first, then speak. Start by thinking about what you’re going to say — well before you say it. If this is difficult, employ the breathing in and out technique. Take one or two deep breaths (you can do this without seeming too obvious) while you consider how you want to frame your words. What’s the purpose for your conversation? Do you need to inform, request information, ask for assistance, offer sympathy, encouragement or counsel? When you’re clear why you need to say something, your message will likely be better received and understood.
  2. Avoid jargon. Just because certain words are in constant use in the media, among friends, by politicians, or on social networks does not mean that they’re conducive to a better understanding in conversations or discussions. In fact, jargon and clichés tend to produce just the opposite effect. Most people tune out, thinking they’ve heard this before and know where it’s going. Any hope you have of having them understand your point of view or become engaged in what you’re saying rapidly diminishes. Find better descriptive words and phrases, use active verbs and keep sentences short. Not only will others start to listen to you, they’ll also absorb more of what you say.
  3. Say less, mean more. Another practical suggestion is to say fewer words, but choose them wisely. People tend to lose concentration or interest when a conversation drags on. Get to the point as quickly as possible. Besides, if you earn a reputation as someone who’s accurate and precise, who doesn’t bloviate or waste others’ time with empty words, people will listen to you more and likely better understand what you say when you speak.
  4. Mean what you say. Most people have an innate ability to detect phoniness when others speak. Your words are only part of the communication process. Tone, body language, emphasis on words or lack thereof, facial expressions, breathing, flushing, sweating and other physical signs also convey emotion, conviction, or a disconnect between what’s being said and what the speaker means or believes. Make it a point to speak the truth according to the values you hold dear and what you believe wholeheartedly.
  5. Don’t belabor the point. Far too many of us blather on, perhaps thinking erroneously that more is better, that continuing to belabor the point will somehow make it clearer. In most cases, it won’t. Exceptions may be if you’re a professor explaining some complicated theory to beginner students, or a surgeon discussing the possible risks and benefits of a proposed surgical procedure. The point is to know when it’s time to quit talking. Once you’ve delivered your message, take a breath. Allow time for the listener to digest and process what you’ve said and to respond accordingly. Conversation is a two-way exchange, not just one way.
  6. Learn how to listen. Of vital importance is that you develop your listening skills. Instead of anticipating what you’re going to say and tuning out the speaker, keep your focus and concentration on what he or she is saying. If you want to develop better understanding of others, you must hear what they’re saying. So, be an active listener. This is not only respectful, it’s necessary to the process of understanding and being understood.
  7. Use appropriate non-verbal communication. In addition, recognize that understanding others sometimes means responding in non-verbal ways. Instead of a lecture on what he or she did wrong, maybe what’s really needed is a hug or a sympathetic look. Actions are also expressions of understanding and this is a technique that you can work on to improve both your understanding of others and theirs of you.