You Don't Understand

by Jennifer Paros

Illustration by Jennifer Paros - Copyright 2009

Illustration by Jennifer Paros - Copyright 2009

In life it’s a big deal when someone says to us, “You don’t understand.” It often implies some lacking on our part, and is hard to counteract.  Even if we want to understand, if we don’t we’ve got a job ahead of us, unless the other person cooperates and helps in some way.  Usually the onus is placed upon the not-understanding-one, and the possibility that the other has perhaps fallen short in teaching his/her perspective is ignored.  

Many who feel “not understood” will argue that they have explained, over and over, and that the other person isn’t LISTENING and/or doesn’t want to hear. They might cast themselves in the role of victim.  Or they might go so far as to impugn the other person’s intelligence, depth, or sensitivity.  But regardless of the judgment, the job of he who does not feel understood is to communicate better. And there’s no getting around it. If it cannot be understood in the language and manner we have used thus far, then what choice do we have?  Efforts must be made, not from a place of seeking approval or trying to be “right”, but from a genuine desire to communicate and share better. 

The same is true in writing.  If the feedback is, “I don’t get it,”  then it’s our job to somehow make the communication clearer. But here’s the tricky important part – we have to do it not in order to get the person to like itrepresent it, or publish it, but because we believe it will open our work up to be more accessible to a greater audience.  It’s not for THEM – never for THEM, or for approval etc., it’s for US.  We do it because we want to communicate better and we see it as an opportunity.  

Not long ago, my younger son who has a history with both receptive and expressive language challenges, complained about how he doesn’t like it when people don’t understand him. My first thought was to respond with some parental pep and soothing, but then I thought better of it.  Instead, I found myself telling him that he is a teacher, and if someone doesn’t understand what he is saying, it is his job to teach them to understand his unique perspective and way.  And that’s when I realized that we are all teachers, and that it is each of our jobs to best express and help others to understand what we have to offer and what we wish to give.  Otherwise, the gift cannot be fully received. 

I once took a video class, and was with the other students critiquing work when we started watching one young woman’s piece (I’ll call her Mary).  All of us were engrossed.  We liked the camera work, the angles, the lighting, her great sense of experimentation, the freedom with which she shot it, and the interesting ideas.  The only problem was,  none of us understood it.  We were responding to her connectedness to her work, for she knew how to follow her own muse quite brilliantly, but when it came time to land the plane, bring it on home, translate her experiences and thoughts so the rest of us could really understand, she was not.  Not yet, anyway.  When the professor brought up the issue of the audience, Mary expressed her concern that in thinking about the audience she would somehow compromise what she wanted to do.  She did not see the feedback as an opportunity to clarify her vision and its expression, she saw it as a threat to her and her work and maintained her focus on not being understood, rather than on learning how to teach us what she had to offer. 

Whether the feedback is that our work is too run-of-the-mill, clichéd, “out there,” avant-garde, simple, or confusing, it doesn’t matter.  All of that can be translated as a message to be more of the teachers we are.  It can be seen as an opportunity to clarify our communication and better teach each other about what we have to offer, which starts with clarifying what we really want to communicate more than anything else.  And once a creative product is hitched to the energy of that it can’t help but finds its proper audience, the audience that will truly understand it.

Jennifer Paros is a writer, illustrator, and author of Violet Bing and the Grand House (Viking, 2007). She lives in Seattle.

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