Why No One Understands You

I was chatting over coffee with a co-worker on a rainy Seattle afternoon recently and casually mentioned that my MacBook Air is the greatest piece of technology I’ve ever owned. Her response?"Yeah, but you're artsy."

Wait -- did she just say, "artsy?"

I wasn’t even sure how to respond. I changed gears and talked about how my Mac never had issues, didn't have to be to be restarted every 15 minutes, was a marvel of human achievement, blah, blah, blah. Completely ignoring the “artsy” comment. But in the back of my mind I kept thinking, “artsy?” Really?

Maybe it’s the glasses.

I casually mentioned this to someone on my team, and she seemed puzzled. But then I realized something. To her, I’m the guy who sets the rules and makes sure everyone’s doing what they’re supposed to. Generally speaking, the opposite of artsy.

You are different things to different people. To the first person, I am the guy who doesn’t dress "corporate," writes all the time and leads a team of people who are incredibly creative in a world full of bureaucracy and spreadsheets. To the second person, I represent "the man.”

If these two people who (should) know you pretty well have completely different ideas of who you are, then who are you? Does anyone really know you?

Or more importantly, does anyone understand you?

In Heidi Grant Halverson’s piece for Harvard Business Review, “We’re All Terrible at Understanding Each Other,” she explains that some of us make it very hard for people to understand us, while others are much better at it. Most of us don’t come across the way we’d like because we’re not objective about ourselves.  Although, others aren’t exactly objective about us either.

So the two big problems we face in being understood: we don't give people enough information, and no one is objective.

This can be very bad for our personal relationships and our career. Halverson says the way to combat this problem is to make more information available about ourselves because when we don’t, others will fill in the blanks. And when they do, it usually turns out bad. Real bad.

The other issue is that we need to be different things to different people. Think about the way you come across to your friends and then how you come across to your boss.  Those two groups of people view you very differently, and you want them to. The important thing is giving both of those groups enough information about you. The basic idea of who you are and what you feel should be the same. This can be tough — it always has been for me. Although, someone referred to me as “mysterious,” which almost makes this shortcoming worth it.

The same goes for your writing or any other content you create. To get the right message across to your readers or customers, you need to give them the information they need in a way they can understand it. There are many ways to do this including analogies, a story, stats, a case study, or just context. Choose the best tool for each situation and really focus on the execution. I learned this the hard way.

I received feedback from one piece I’d like to forget that was read by hundreds of thousands of people. The hundreds of emails accused me of being both a liberal and a conservative. I either didn’t explain things very well, or I’m very balanced. More than likely, the former.

The biggest takeaway is making sure you’re giving people enough information because if you don’t, they’ll make it up. And when people fill in the blanks on their own, 90% of the time it won’t be what you hope it will. Whether it’s your spouse, readers, boss or your customers, you need to put the information out there. If not, you’ll have only yourself to blame.

The other piece of this is being responsible with the info you take in about others. Nowhere is this more abused than on Facebook. The self-righteous live for taking a joke or something fun and turning it into World Ware III. Somehow, we’ve lost the notion of “intent” in this country.

So, next time you’re at work, a party, or creating content ask yourself if you’re giving people enough information to understand where you’re coming from. If you don’t, you could be mistaken for a Donald Trump supporter when you’re actually hoping Internet pioneer Al Gore makes a comeback.


Photo by Steve Bates via CC-BY-2.0