Photo Credit: Rifka Schonfeld

There are some people who could hear you speak a thousand words and don’t understand a word you say. Other times there are people who will understand you even without your speaking a single word.

On the other hand, there are times that we understand others completely, and times that we don’t understand them at all. Heidi Grant Halvorson, a social psychologist who studies the science of motivation and communication, wrote a book on the subject entitled No One Understands You and What You Can Do About it.


Dr. Halvorson explains that because we have limited time and energy, our brains are hardwired to minimize the effort you put into understanding anything, including other people and their motivations. In others words, “We want to spend as much effort and energy trying to understand something as we have to, but not an ounce more. We very unconsciously rely heavily on what we expect a person to be like.” And therefore, we often misunderstand those around us. This misunderstanding works the other way as well, other people misread us as well.

How can we overcome this perception error? How can we ensure that people who meet us for the limited amount of time (in the workplace or in school) perceives us as we are? Halvorson suggests three tips to help your true colors shine through:

            Show competence and warmth. You want people to know that you are good at what you do. Therefore, you exude competence. You show them that you are able to handle tricky situations with ease. This will help people understand that you are strong. The problem is that many people just exhibit competence, and other people see it as a threat. They might see your ability and immediately think, “Oh, there’s a rival!” That’s why you need to pair competence with warmth. If you reach out to those around you and let them know that you are vulnerable through eye contact and smiles, you will be showing them that you are both strong and kind. Instead of being perceived as a threat, you will be perceived as a friend of value.

            Remove ambiguity. Sometime we worry that we will be too forceful or too repetitive, so we leave out things that are “obvious.” However, what’s obvious to us isn’t always obvious to another person. Don’t be afraid to let other people know that you enjoy spending time with them or that you value them as friends.

            Make others feel that they are on your team. Especially in a work environment, but even socially, other people can be jealous of your success. This jealousy can make them think that you are arrogant or narcissistic, looking out only for yourself. In order to combat this perception, you should let people know that you are on their team. Tell them stories about when you made mistakes. Let them know that you are their ally. This way, they will not view you as a threat, but as a friend.

Now we have discovered how to help other people understand us, but what about understanding other people? How can we make sure that we are not seeing people the way we “expect” them to be, but rather as they truly are?

            Take your time. An article published in Journal of Neuroscience in 2014 found that the brain determines how trustworthy a face is before it’s fully perceived. That means that our brains are making decisions about trust even before we have fully seen the person we are looking at. But, those snap decisions are not correct. They are based on stereotypes. If you truly want to understand people, take your time making judgments. Rather than making a decision within the first few seconds of meeting someone, tell yourself before that you are going to spend ten minutes with the person before making any judgments.

            Commit to being fair. We all want to be fair, but we often don’t even realize that we aren’t being fair in our interactions with others. Say it to yourself before you meet a new person, put it on your fridge, or schedule a reminder on your phone every now and then. If you are fair, you will judge someone based on their actions and words, and not on their appearance or reputation.

            Beware of confirmation bias. If we already think something of someone, our brains will automatically be looking for information to confirm that bias. For instance, if you think Rachel is lazy, when you see her sitting at her desk and eating and not working, you will think “Yep, she’s lazy!” However, there might have been countless times that she was working when you walked by and you didn’t notice because you already had the bias. If you are aware of your biases, you can start collecting information that negates them rather than constantly upholding them.

It’s hard to constantly feel misunderstood, but how can we blame others for misunderstanding us if we aren’t taking steps to understand them? Following the steps above can help others understand you and you understand others. Sometimes it might take a thousand words, but hopefully at some point, we can all be understood.


Register now for an anger management workshop by Dr. Ross Greene on November 14, 2017. Please call Mrs. Schonfeld at 718-382-5437 for more information.


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An acclaimed educator and social skills ​specialist​, Mrs. Rifka Schonfeld has served the Jewish community for close to thirty years. She founded and directs the widely acclaimed educational program, SOS, servicing all grade levels in secular as well as Hebrew studies. A kriah and reading specialist, she has given dynamic workshops and has set up reading labs in many schools. In addition, she offers evaluations G.E.D. preparation, social skills training and shidduch coaching, focusing on building self-esteem and self-awareness. She can be reached at 718-382-5437 or at [email protected].