Understanding is Never Perfect

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Some seem to think that empathizing requires that we understand an “other” 100%.

First of all, as I mentioned previously, sometimes we can empathize without any understanding whatsoever.

Second of all, I do not know of any way we can objectively quantify and measure understanding. Until such means become available, we cannot claim 100% accuracy and precision.

Finally, while accuracy and precision are important, I’m not sure such absolute achievement is necessary or even desired.A far more useful measure would be to consider whether our understanding is sufficient for a particular context.

Let us revisit the definition of empathizing I put forth previously.

Empathizing is an experience, where we feel as if we are connected or at one instead of as if we are disconnected or at odds.

Now, the keyword here is “as if.” Because what we are dealing with is a relational yet subjective experience. The experience alone does not empower us to objectively claim anything about the other. Interestingly enough, neither can they. All we have are two related yet subjective experiences.

Take the story of me in conversation with my bi-polar friend. In that situation, it was important that I tried to understand my friend before I could empathize with her. As a result, I did my best to verify my understanding of her to achieve greater accuracy. Did I understand her 100%? I don’t know.

All I did was I understood her enough.

Why was that enough? Because she felt understood. How do I know that? Because she said “thank you for understanding me.” I’d say that was sufficient for that particular context.2

Is there more I could understand that would improve the accuracy and precision with which I understand her? Sure. There will always be more.3

Humility is a virtue when it comes to understanding anything or anyone. Science is marked by significant paradigm shifts that show that previous understanding was either plain wrong or incomplete. Understanding is best framed as an ongoing pursuit.
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1 The more we think we “know” an other, or that we have “fully” understood or embodied them, the more likely it is for us to stop wanting or trying to learn about them further. This means that our empathy in relation to them will be lowered. If we value the continued improvement of accuracy and precision with which we empathize with an other, it is far more desirable to frame the act of realizing empathy as an ongoing pursuit rather than a finite goal to be reached.

Renowned psychologist Carl Rogers also mentions the “as if” condition in his work, in order to caution therapists not to get enveloped in/overwhelmed by the other’s emotions—which would not be helpful to either party.

2 This is called intersubjective verifiability.

3 Take the example I gave on my last post about parent-child relationships. Let’s say we tweak the example to where the child thinks she does understand her parents. There is still a good chance that after a decade or so, she will realize that in fact she did not. At least not as accurately and as precisely as she imagined. Without the experience her parents had, she had no choice but to miss some of the more nuanced and subtle meaning behind their words.