Reacting To Someone Who Feels Misunderstood

How do you typically respond when a person accuses you of not understanding them?

It’s easy to make two opposite but equally disastrous mistakes – get fearful or get angry. Sometimes we get angry and snip, “I understand you completely. Actually, you don’t understand me!” Other times we get anxious and whimper, “Never mind. Sorry I brought it up.” Both silence and violence will block mutual understanding and destroy trust. But, learning to respond with grace and truth will relieve tension and enable the kind of communication that clears a path through the gridlock caused by alleged misunderstandings.

By looking to the Bible, and Jesus’ example, we can train ourselves to respond with grace and truth when someone accuses, “You don’t understand me at all!”

  1. Remember God’s patience. Adam was the first person to imply someone else did not understanding him. He believed God had it all wrong. He told God the real problem wasn’t his disobedience it was “the woman you put here with me. She gave me some fruit and I ate.” (Genesis 3:12) From the beginning, God’s patience has been abundantly clear. In Exodus 34:6, God proclaimed his name saying, “I am Yahweh, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness.” In as much as we remember God’s patient toward us, will we have the ability to be patient toward others who (rightly or wrongly) feel misunderstood.
  2. Stay curious and engaged. It’s easy to either feel provoked or to grow apathetic when your repeated attempts to address an issue are met with the counter-attack, “You don’t understand!” It’s hard to stay calmly engaged. But remember, God didn’t crush or ignore Adam. Instead He patiently asked questions, “Where are you? Have you eaten from tree I commanded you not to eat from?” (Genesis 2:10-11) We reflect God’s ways when we respond with grace and truth. Get curious, not furious, in the conversation. For example you might say, “I am sorry you don’t feel understood. I want to hear you out. What am I missing?”
  3. Relieve the need to be right. When misunderstandings linger, often the most common cause is a perceived need to be right. The consequences of being wrong, whether real or imagined, prevent people from admitting error. This fear is relieved as people sense they will be accepted even if they admit their failures and faults. You can develop safety by taking the first step to admit how you may be wrong. Show your willingness, even contentment, to be wrong. Clarify that the goal isn’t to prove each other wrong but to learn and then to be willing to change as a result.
  4. Stubbornly nourish hope. Nothing undermines a person’s confidence to resolve a misunderstanding like the loss of hope. Take orphans for instance. Compared to other children orphans tend to be very suspicious. They constantly test other’s intentions. They stubbornly resist the very help they require. While their behavior is not difficult to understand, it is counter-productive. Without patient intervention, their learned hopelessness (evidenced in the cries “No one understands me.”) will make them increasingly bitter and isolated. Jesus responded to such hopelessness not with dismissive platitudes but with empathy. He gave up his rights as God’s son and was abandoned on the cross. But, Jesus didn’t stop at empathy. He stubbornly fought for victory over the misery caused by betrayal, suffering, evil and death. Then he promised, “I will not leave you as orphans” (John 14:18). In as much as we understand this good news we will possess a hope more stubborn than anyone’s despair and we will offer it at every turn of the conversation.
  5. Be careful with “I’m sorry!”  As the causes of the misunderstanding become clear, we must not stop short of true reconciliation. Many people wrongly assume that saying “I’m sorry” is sufficient, but that may rob everyone (including themselves) of a more satisfying resolution. Saying “I’m sorry” is appropriate for uncontrollable events or unavoidable mistakes. Beyond that, we should be more circumspect. Sometimes “sorry” remains appropriate for an unintentional accident.  For example, “I’m sorry I bumped into you. I did not see you behind me.”  However, if you are in a habit of rushing about the office your apology will not suffice. You are being careless. Legitimate reconciliation usually happens when offenders confess their wrongdoing, reflect empathy, ask for forgiveness and offer appropriate recompense. To illustrate you might say, “I was rushing and not aware of my surroundings (confession of wrong) and I caused you to drop your stack of papers (reflecting empathy). Will you forgive me? (surrendering the upper hand with a humbling request) Can I help you reorganize them? (offer appropriate recompense). In the same way, don’t assume you can resolve a misunderstanding with a simple “I’m sorry”Work for a mutual understanding and a real reconciliation. The benefits will be well worth the cost.

Mastering these five principles takes practice but they will make a big difference. We can’t guarantee any particular person will feel understood, but we can create an environment where mutual understanding is the norm.

(This article is a follow up to Finding Hope When You Feel Misunderstood.)

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Finding Hope When You Feel Misunderstood

Sitcoms through the decades, from Three’s Company to The Office, became popular because they humorously illustrated our human potential for misunderstanding. While amusing to watch on television, it’s not nearly as funny in real life when others get the wrong idea about us. Especially when things get personal, our tendency is not to laugh out loud but to cry foul and complain, “You don’t understand me at all!”

Unfortunately, the blame for misunderstanding cannot always be laid at other’s feet. Of course, people will misunderstand us. But we can misunderstand ourselves as well. Until we admit that we may not know ourselves as well as we think, we will feel increasingly frustrated and alienated during conflict. We must consider that other people, even our harshest critics, may be onto something significant that we do not yet perceive, and that if we listen wisely we will be better off.

Keep in mind, most of us share a sixth sense that calls into question the innocence of those who too eagerly claim the high ground in a conflict by asserting, “I feel misunderstood!” Below are examples of such attempts that I’ve heard this past week:

  • “I’m not trying to be controlling. I just like things done a certain way.”
  • “I don’t want to gossip, but I just want you to be in the know.”
  • “Okay, I yelled! But I really wasn’t angry. I was just tired.”

We feel justified claiming the high ground but unless we stand on rock solid truth, most people will feel emboldened to dismount us — and for good reason.

It is easier to recognize when we are misunderstood than it is to recognize when another person might feel the same way. We simply don’t know the mitigating circumstances behind other people’s stories, and we tend to give ourselves, not others, the benefit of the doubt. If we are not conscious of such inequities, we become sitting ducks for crippling self-pity and nauseating hypocrisy as we relate to others. Tragically, we may even start to believe that being misunderstood is our unique lot in life.

At least in private, most of us are quite comfortable sticking negative labels on others, but then resist anyone’s attempt to label us. We get defensive and say things like, “I am not controlling. My father was controlling but I am not like him.” We are understandably resistant to being labeled. Labels tend to form an identity and that terrifies us. So, we might admit that we lose our temper from time to time. But, don’t you dare suggest that I’m an angry person! I may be moody but I am no Debbie Downer.

How shall we be justified when so many negative labels fly about? The childish person fights. (“No, I’m not. You are!”) The religious person compensates. (“But look at all the good things I’ve done.”) The modern person victimizes. (“I suffer from an anxiety disorder”.) The post-modern person deconstructs. (“Is it selfish if I am just being true to myself?”) Honestly, none of these approaches address the real issues without equivocation and fear. They all resist grappling with the full truth and offer, at best, a cheap version of grace.

The gospel of Jesus Christ uniquely empowers us to receive criticism without getting defensive because it completely guts the source of fear. Remember gospel means good news, not good advice. In a court of law, lawyers can give good advice but only the judge can give good news. For the Christian, God has already ruled. His judgement is good news because it meets both the demands of justice, and our need for mercy. It is good news because, even though we are guilty, we are cleared of all charges based on what Jesus did for us. He paid our penalty and then offered us His reward. This good news means God already knows the worst about us but has not let it stick. Though our sins be exposed they don’t ultimately define us. The cross reminds us that God keeps hold of us, even at our lowest, in order to restore us higher than our noblest ideals. Such grace is rich, transforming and liberating!

Only when we know we are loved at our lowest can we have confidence to face the worst in ourselves with complete honesty and unyielding hope. So when other’s point out our faults we don’t need to fear. The gospel gives us the courage to be completely transparent about our issues, and even entertain the possibility that our blind spots are bigger than we realize.

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