Why Can’t He/She Understand Me? – 10 Simple Steps

In our coaching practice, we’d be wealthy if we received one dollar for every time we’ve heard the question in the title. Additionally, I may be nearing Warren Buffett’s status if I received a dollar every time I thought it.

The biggest problem with this question is that it puts the blame on the other person, rather than looking into the mirror to see the person who is doing a poor job of communicating.

You may be thinking, “But Dan, it takes two to have communication happen.” Absolutely correct. Yet it takes one person to be big enough to keep working at it, using different approaches, until total understanding happens.

One of the challenges with communication is the definition of words. Because of past experiences, two people may have totally different assumptions, meanings, and attachments to certain words and their use – neither is right or wrong, just different.


Carol said, “We haven’t had a holiday in years.”

I was perplexed because we had taken a couple weekends to camp at a nearby campground, had numerous visits to our parent’s and sibling’s homes, and had facilitated several couple’s retreats at a mountain resort, where we had our evenings to ourselves. In my definition, these were holidays. For me, even a day to myself working in our forest is a holiday.

For Carol, a holiday meant at least a week away from our home and work environment, staying in hotels, eating in restaurants, and preferably with some airplane time.

Neither is right or wrong, just a difference we hadn’t talked about.

Carol asked, “Can we take some time to be together tonight?”

I thought that would be fabulous. We could work together to get the bookkeeping caught up, do some yardwork, laundry, and some other clean-up in the house.

Carol was a bit disappointed because she meant for us to slow down, sit together, and talk about our relationship and the deeper meaning of our lives.

Neither is right or wrong, just a difference we hadn’t talked about.

The difference in definition is not the problem. The muck-up happens when I assume Carol’s definition is the same as mine (or decide her definition is wrong) and tell myself a story that she is doing things just to tick me off.

Sound familiar?

The solution is so simple; one question and then listen to understand. What is the question?

“I’m curious to know. What does the word _________ mean to you?”

These differences in definitions happen everywhere: marriages, workplaces, community. I believe that the foundation of a healthy, productive society starts at home, so here’s my challenge for you, should you choose to accept it.

Schedule a time for you and your spouse or partner to have a conversation about your definitions of words, which also includes actions or behaviour supporting them and the feelings associated with them.

Here are 10 Simple Steps to make this informative and fun.

1. Create a list of words for definition-clarification. Examples: holiday, time together, respect, trust, house-keeping, awareness, communication, family time, leadership, intimacy, passion, dedication, romance, fulfilment, success, happiness, fun, joy, and love. Choose only one or two words you agree to talk about for the first time. Keep the list for later conversations.
2. Firmly imprint in your minds that the definitions are not right or wrong; they are information you can use to enhance your communication and strengthen your relationship.
3. Determine who will start and ask the question, “I’m curious to know. What does the word, _________ (insert your word) mean to you?”
4. If you’ve asked the question, your next job is to zip-the-lip and listen only. Listen with the intent to really understand. Set aside your own definition, judgements, assumptions, and attachments. Listen to understand. Listen to understand. Listen to understand. Yeah, I know I repeated it.
5. If you’re not totally sure you understand completely, ask questions such as, “Could you please tell me more about that?” or “Help me understand your thoughts about that?” or “With that definition, how do you feel when you have that?”
6. Absolutely, totally, 100%, and for-sure avoid interrupting, defending, probing, judging, or anger. Be curious and listen to understand. Keep a curious mindset and a positive (or at least neutral) facial expression.
7. When you think you understand your partner’s definition, explain it back to him/her and ask if you’ve got it straight. If not, continue the dialogue.
8. Once you’ve understood, repeat the process with the other person asking the question, “I’m curious to know. What does the word, _________ (insert your word) mean to you?” Use the exact same word so both people have the opportunity to explain their definition.
9. Enter into a 2-way dialogue about the similarities and differences in your definition.
10. Agree to a definition that works for both of you. You may want to write this down and create a bit of a dictionary for yourselves.

I really doubt that you are a person who intentionally does things to be malicious or mean, especially to your spouse or partner.

Why not eliminate the chances of him/her thinking this is so by getting really clear on the definitions of words you both use?  Why not work together to eliminate those things which used to lead to major muck-ups? How much extra happiness and joy could you experience?

What do you have to lose? Or the better question is, what do you have to gain?

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