The Key to Being Understood

…is to understand.

It’s great to have the best argument, the clearest articulation, and the cleverest presentation. But the (often frustrating) truth is that none of those things amount to a hill of beans if we can’t understand the person we’re talking to.

Being right isn’t enough. Being clever and polished isn’t enough. We can beat others over the head all day long with superior reasoning and unassailable logic, but if we don’t get through to our audience, what’s the point? What have we accomplished?

Not much.

Here’s the problem:

Everything that comes out of your mouth is going to make sense to you. You have a reason for saying it, after all. Your knowledge, your life experiences, your thoughts and feelings, your beliefs and values—with all those things as context, it’s easy to understand what you’re saying and why you’re saying it.

The person you’re talking to probably doesn’t have any of that context.

They’re coming to the table with their own knowledge, their own life experiences, their own thoughts, feelings, beliefs, and values—and in that context, what you’re saying might sound like something else entirely. It might sound like absolute nonsense.

That’s the root of miscommunication. We all have our own frameworks for looking at the world—and trying to communicate with others without taking that into account is like trying to jam a cassette tape into a CD player. Even if you manage to force it in there, it’s not going to serve any useful purpose.

There’s a reason people don’t tend to leave a Facebook comment thread with a changed mind or a fresh perspective. Most people aren’t coming to social media so they can understand others—they’re there to be understood. To tell, not to hear. And so we post and argue and debate and pepper our eloquent rebuttals with memes and insults and condescension, and everyone walks away feeling more entrenched in their particular camp of choice than they were when they started.

I like Paul’s approach better. When the Athenian philosophers overhead Paul reasoning with the Jewish and Gentile worshippers, they took him to the Areopagus and asked him to explain these “strange things” (Acts 17:20) he was teaching in the synagogues and the marketplace.

Paul was right in his beliefs, and the philosophers were wrong. He worshipped the one true God, and the philosophers “spent their time in nothing else but either to tell or to hear some new thing” (Acts 17:21). So how does he begin his defense of the gospel? With a blistering retort to cut them all down to size? With a self-assured smirk because of his moral superiority? By pointing out every wrong thing they believed and taking them to task for their ignorance?

“Men of Athens, I perceive that in all things you are very religious” (Acts 17:22).

He meets them where they are. This was a city “given over to idols” (Acts 17:16), filled with the exact kind of pagan worship that God finds repulsive and abhorrent. Paul doesn’t approve of it, but he uses it as a way to find some common ground. He points to one of their many altars, dedicated “TO THE UNKNOWN GOD” (Acts 17:23), and explains that his God is this unknown God. The God.

He explains that God created mankind from one blood, one family, “so that they should seek the Lord, in the hope that they might grope for Him and find Him” (Acts 17:27). The unknown God wants to be found by them. He points them toward a verse from one of their own poets, which happens to land on the truth: “For we are also His offspring” (Acts 17:28).

Then Paul talks about the gospel message. About how the idols of the city can never capture the true divine nature of God. About how God commands us to repent. About a coming judgment and the resurrection of the dead. But he doesn’t start there. He starts by showing them that he sees where they are. That he understands them.

He doesn’t agree with them. He doesn’t approve of their beliefs. He doesn’t suggest there are other valid alternatives to the Word of God. But he shows, before ever asking to be understood, that he understands.

Does the entire Areopagus fall to its knees in repentance? Hardly. Some of them mocked Paul. Some of them were intrigued but not convinced. “However, some men joined him and believed, among them Dionysius the Areopagite, a woman named Damaris, and others with them” (Acts 17:34).

We all want to be understood. That’s hard-coded into our human nature. When someone tries to change our mind on an issue, it’s a lot harder to listen (or even want to listen) when we don’t feel understood—when we feel like the other person cannot or will not take the time to see the world through our eyes.

Our job is to take the first step. Don’t expect others to go out of their way to understand you—go out of your way to understand them. Show them with your words that you’ve taken the time, done the research, and tried your best to put yourself in their shoes. Talk to them from where they are; talk to them about what they see, the way they see it. It won’t be a perfect job, and it doesn’t require us to approve or accept things we don’t believe—but common ground is a lot easier to find when we’re willing to “be swift to hear, slow to speak, slow to wrath” (James 1:19).

Let’s take the time to understand before we ask to be understood.

Until next time,
Jeremy

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