U is for Understanding

U is for Understanding


Zach Brittle

There are about a half-dozen primary sound bites that frame Gottman Method Couples Therapy. One is Small Things Often.

There are about a half-dozen primary sound bites that frame Gottman Method Couples Therapy. One is Small Things Often. Small Things Often is the idea that it’s the small positive things done often that make the difference in relationships that thrive. Small things – a wink, a compliment, a car wash – add up and create a surplus of good-will and affection that make it easy to ignore some of the very many mundane trials that couples face every day. Small things often can create big changes over time.

Another soundbite is Process Is Everything. This means that how you talk through those very many mundane trials is what matters. Your ability to treat one another with kindness and respect is more important than your need to solve the problem. Couples who process well know how to repair and reflect. They know that it’s not what they say, but the way they say it that matters. They know that all of their feelings and emotions are allowed, but that some of the ways they express those feelings and emotions are not. Process is everything means the relationship is more important than the issue.

A third soundbite, and one of my favorites, is Understanding Must Precede Advice. This, of course, is ancient wisdom that could have come from Buddha or Gandhi. More recently, it’s entered popular consciousness in the form of Steven Covey’s 5th Habit for Highly Effective People: “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.” Even more recently, Jason Headley and the guy who invented the internet have brought us this video.

Understanding Must Precede Advice is a difficult premise to uphold. In part, it’s because we want so desperately to be understood. It’s the way we’re wired. Human beings have been trying to express themselves since the beginning of time. I recently read about a sculpture of two reindeers carved into a mammoth tusk. The carving is nearly 13,000 years old and is part of the collection at the British Museum. What’s fascinating about the sculpture is that it is one of the earliest known expressions of art and historians suggest that the capacity – and indeed the drive for art – is evidence that humans have an innate desire to make their inner world known. The impulse to be understood is deeply ingrained. And it’s hard to suppress what is, essentially, our humanity.

The second reason that Understanding Must Precede Advice is so hard is that it’s so easy, and comforting, to give advice. Especially for men. “It’s Not About the Nail” is funny because it’s true. As a man, I love solving problems. And, if I’m honest, I’d rather solve your problems than my own. Because if I can fix you, then I can feel good about myself without having to look at my own stuff. (Side note: Whether you’re a man or a woman, this is an especially present challenge for a mental health therapist. But I am convinced that we serve our clients better when we avoid the temptation to give advice and instead offer understanding.) I’m actually convinced that’s true no matter what role you play. But again, it’s hard, so how do you avoid the trap?

Think of a cue ball. You can probably imagine the heft, texture, and color in your hand pretty simply. Not much to consider, amiright? I once read, however, relative to the surface of the earth, the ridges and valleys on a cue ball were higher than the highest mountains and deeper than the deepest oceans on our plant. I think that’s kind of wild. Now imagine a conversation (or a conflict) where the topic was a cue ball being tossed back and forth. All too often, we fail to consider what is actually being said. In part because we think we already know. That cue ball isn’t really all that interesting if you’re not paying attention. It’s certainly not as interesting as the thing I want to say, so I’m going to toss that ball right back.

But consider if that cue ball was a globe. Go ahead and imagine a regular desktop globe and imagine the conversation involves tossing it back and forth. Have you ever noticed how much bigger the Pacific Ocean is than the Atlantic? Do you know close Alaska and Russia are? How far do the Rocky Mountains run north to south? What’s the quickest way to fly to from Kansas City to Greenland? How far north is Rome compared to Miami? Which is bigger, Germany or Chile?

You have to look. You have to consider. You have to take that globe that’s been tossed at you and roll it around. Look at it from different angles. You have to marvel that the cue ball you had before is actually more textured than the detailed map you’re holding in your hand. That means entertaining the possibility than you might not have complete clarity about the situation, the conversation, the complication.

Understanding requires looking, considering, examining, comparing and contrasting. It requires more curiosity than certainty. And more safety than solution. Ideally, you’ve done a good job with Small Things Often and Process is Everything. Then you can confidently do Understanding Must Precede Advice. The first step is to set aside the impulse express yourself and your temptation to solve. Once you’ve done that, you’ve got a much better chance of discovering what that cue ball, or globe, or conversation or conflict is really all about. Because most likely, it’s not about the nail.

Special Note I Promised To Include:

My daughter and I took a walk the other day when, during our conversation about “understanding,” it started to rain. Being from Seattle, I take a special sort of pride in not owning an umbrella. Being 11 years old, my daughter takes a special sort of pride in being fancy. She had an umbrella and was serious about using it. I refused, for whatever 41 year old reason I could conjure, to take shelter with her when she said, “You know dad, if you were standing under my umbrella, you wouldn’t be so wet and miserable. Understanding protects you from the storm.” Linguistically, it’s a stretch, but I think the insight is pretty sound. Sometimes 11 trumps 41 when it comes to wisdom.


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