Goethe wrote, “Every man hears only what he understands.”*
Our jobs are about communication. No matter what we say, no matter how elegantly we phrase it, no matter how intelligent it sounds – the other person is only going to hear what they understand. The same is true for whatever we’re listening to as well.
When we’re trying to get an idea across and the other person ends up admittedly confused or adamantly incorrect, we have to remember this Goethe aphorism. They’re only hearing what they understand. How else can we approach our messaging?
Professionally, all business is about helping people find and choose a perspective they value. It’s when people are already invested in an idea where we have to be extra careful. “Understanding” only clicks into place when there’s a fit. Those warnings about not talking about politics and religion at office parties? They’re an extreme example rooted in the same idea.
The highest level of connection comes from a mutual understanding. The most productive level of communication comes when information is shared and the collective understanding is raised. We can’t take ownership of what others understand, but we can be up to the challenge of figuring out how to help them, and ourselves, communicate better.
*No, I wasn’t casually reading Goethe this weekend, but I was reading Farnam Street where they shared some highlights from Goethe’s Maxims and Reflections.