The Understander Role

4.0 Overview Of The Understander Role

a. What’s the role all about?

When you are in the Understander role, your goal is to understand what the other person wishes to communicate. Not to agree or disagree with them, but simply to understand. This is the role you are in when you’re listening to a story, message, point of view or case. The job of the Understander is to work hard at understanding what the Explainer/Teller is saying, not only by listening but also by asking for more information and by checking their understanding as the conversation goes along.

When Jeff tell his wife, Martha, about his visit to the doctor, she’s in the Understander role as she listens to him describe his experiences and concerns. When Chris, the decorator, listens to Alison explain why she’s disappointed with his work, Chris is in the Understander role, as he works hard at understanding her points. When Natalie summarises Tim’s reasons for preferring a walking holiday rather than the usual beach vacation, she’s in the Understander role, demonstrating that she wants to be fair-minded in deciding where to go.

b. The importance of being a proactive Understander

Some people seem to be naturally curious. They like to know what’s going on around them. They like to know how things work. They don’t wait to be told things, but seek out the answers for themselves.

Lynne is naturally curious. In the shop she manages, she likes to keep up to date with what’s happening in her employees work lives. She asks for their ideas on how customer service could be improved. She likes to know what her staff think about the products they are selling. It’s a similar picture at home. She makes sure she knows what’s happening with her children at school and what kinds of pressure her husband is under.

Since Lynne is a good communicator, she’s careful not to specialise exclusively in the Understander role. She puts just as much energy into the Teller role, expressing her own thoughts and feelings ideas with enthusiasm and clarity.

By way of contrast, Mary is not a curious type. She listens well enough but seldom seeks out information on her own initiative. She is a passive, rather than active, Understander. People who know her well say they rarely get the feeling that Mary’s actually interested in what you are saying. She listens more out of politeness than a desire to know.

If you are more like Mary than Lynne, then perhaps it’s time for you to start cultivating and greater sense of curiosity.

c. Patience and persistence in the Understander role

Another important quality required for excellence in the Understander role is patience — patience with yourself and with the Explainer/Tellers with whom you are conversing. Effective Understanders are willing to provide their conversational partners with the necessary time, attention, and encouragement to get their stories, messages, points of view, and cases across.

In the following example, Ian has been talking to his brother, Martin, about how to help their mother deal with the afflictions of old age. Diane is their sister.

Ian says, “Mum is out of hospital now. But it would be good to get together with Diane and make plans for whatever might happen next. Mum’s not going to live forever. She knows that better than the rest of us."

Martin replies, “A plan would be good. If Mum ever becomes disabled, we'd need to be able pull together to cope with that… . By the way, when you say ‘we’, I'm assuming that includes mum."

Ian, obviously a little taken by surprise, goes on to say, "Well … well, of course. It's her life. We shouldn't be planning for her, but with her. But to tell you the truth, I was thinking of the planning you, Diane, and I were going to do and wasn't including her. But she has more common sense than all of us. What do you think about all of us getting together with her and taking a realistic look at the future?"

In that conversation, Martin in the Understander role listens carefully, responds with understanding, and checks an assumption. By checking his assumption with Ian, he provides an ‘opening’, which Ian ‘enters’ and deals with the issue. "We won't plan our mother's life for her. We're a family. All of us are affected. We'll do it together."

4.1 Visibly Tuning In
4.2 Listening Actively With An Open Mind
4.3 Listening For Highlights
4.4 Feeding Back Selected Highlights
4.5 Working To Get The Full Picture
4.6 Using Constructive Rather Than Ill-Conceived Responses
4.7 Summarising For Clarity And Understanding

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