New Research Shows The Crucial Difference Between Being And Feeling Understood

Researcher Marie-Catherine Mignault explains what constitutes the feeling of 'being understood.'

By Mark Travers, Ph.D. | November 2, 2023

A new study published in the Journal of Research in Personality explores how individuals must be understood by others in order for them to feel understood, and uncovers how perceptions of personality and emotions relate to our feeling of being understood.

I recently spoke to Marie-Catherine Mignault—a postdoctoral fellow in Organizational Behavior at Cornell University and the lead author of the study—about how being and feeling understood is essential in our lives and relationships, and how this feeling can be achieved. Here is a summary of our conversation.

What inspired you to investigate the topic of being and feeling understood?

Building high-quality relationships is essential to live a healthy, fulfilling life. But how do you develop such relationships? A core element of those more fulfilling relationships is feeling understood.

When you feel understood by someone, you feel that this person "gets" you in some fundamental way. Because of that, you feel more connected to that person, and you are more likely to trust that person, be vulnerable with them, and let them influence you. You are more likely to take that person's perspective in return, and better solve conflicts.

So, it's very powerful in relationships to feel understood. But one question that has eluded researchers, over and over, is exactly how do we need to be understood by others to feel understood? In other words, how do we "bottle" the powerful experience of feeling understood? This is what got us curious about the topic. Specifically, we wanted to know, do you feel most understood when others see who you are as a person, or when they see how you feel in the moment?

What methodologies did you use, and what do you consider your most significant finding to be?

We thought that the best way to tackle this question was by examining it in the real world, capturing people in a real moment of connection with one another. So, we conducted a field study in cafés and bars, approaching people in the midst of conversation with someone else, such as a friend, romantic partner, colleague, and invited both people to participate in our study.

If both conversation partners agreed, we first asked them to rate their own personality and emotions, and importantly, to also rate their partner's personality and emotions. In that way, we captured people's actual understanding of each other. After these initial ratings, we invited people to continue their conversation for 10 minutes. After the 10 minutes were over, we came back and asked them this: to what extent do you feel understood by your conversation partner right now?

The key finding, no matter the type of relationship and regardless of the topic of conversation, is that people felt more understood when their partner accurately understood—not their overall personality—but their overall emotions, especially their more positive, socially desirable emotions. To confirm that this was indeed the case, we replicated this finding in a more controlled online study with couples.

Can you give a brief description of the difference between overall emotion and overall personality accuracy in relation to feeling understood?

Having your "overall profile" accurately perceived would mean to be seen accurately across several personality traits or emotional states. For example, being viewed in line with your "overall" personality profile would entail your friend or coworker correctly recognizing that you're very outgoing, somewhat meticulous and not at all forgiving as a person.

In parallel, being viewed in line with your "overall" emotion profile would entail your friend or coworker recognizing that you're feeling, say, very anxious and not so proud right now. So what we find is that people feel understood when others understand their overall emotion profile, not their overall personality profile. In other words, we feel understood when others understand how we feel, not when they understand who we are.

Can you talk a little bit about why you think it is important for someone to view their friend or partner's emotions or personality as "normative" for them to feel understood?

Here's the challenge when asking people to rate their personality and emotions: People have this tendency to view themselves and each other in a positive, socially desirable light. So, when we look at the average person's overall profile of personality or emotions, it is very positive. Then, how do we know if people want to be perceived in line with what is unique about them or in line with what is average and therefore more positive? To be able to examine this, we separate the overall profile of personality or emotions into two components: what is more normative and desirable about people in general, and how a given person deviates from that more normative and desirable profile, what is unique or distinct about them.

When taking a closer look at people's emotion profiles, and disentangling more unique from more normative aspects of people's emotional experiences, it turns out that what makes people feel especially understood is not when others view their emotions under a microscope, detecting what is particularly unique and distinct about their emotions, but rather, when others view their emotions through rose-tinted glasses, viewing the person's emotions in line with how people typically feel in general, the "normative" emotion profile. Put differently, people feel understood when others view how their emotions are normal, and even desirable.

Why? You could have a strong emotional reaction to an event, for example, get the news via email that you will not be hired for your dream job, and feel extremely disappointed. If your friend or coworker is at a café with you as you get this email, and catches your disappointment, but instead of viewing exactly how much disappointment you feel, views your level of disappointment as normal, it can help get the feeling that you're not overreacting, that your emotions "just make sense." And that is likely to be very validating, letting you know that you won't be judged strongly for feeling strong emotions. This sends the message that it's not threatening to let your guard down, and in turn, can help build trust in the relationship.

What are the practical takeaways from your research for someone struggling with feeling understood by important people in their lives, or for someone who wants to better understand others?

In terms of takeaways for people who struggle with feeling misunderstood, I think our findings can help them recognize more specifically why they might be feeling that way: they might feel misunderstood because their emotions are judged harshly or negatively by others. Perhaps this can provide a guide to the types of relationships to seek and invest in; ones in which others perceive your emotions with a softer, more positive outlook.

In terms of takeaways for people who want to better understand others, our findings have important organizational downstream consequences for leaders and teams. Leaders and managers, in charge of teams and large groups of people, might be especially interested in how to effectively foster connections with individual members.

I think that viewing employees' emotions through a more positive lens, even when they are going through a difficult time, can be very validating, helping them feel understood, and as a result they might be more inclined to trust the leader, and in turn let the leader guide and influence them. On teams, viewing others' emotions in a more normative way could help people feel more psychologically safe, which is an important predictor of enhanced creativity.

After conducting your research, are you more likely to view felt understanding as a product of accurate perceptions of emotions and personality? Or is it something that can be achieved in other ways within different kinds of relationships?

We do believe that feeling understood does not happen in a vacuum; it must, at least on some level, be anchored in how we are actually understood by others. And in our research, we found that having our emotions understood in a normative, socially desirable light fostered feeling understood in various social contexts, as well as with different types of people and relationships, which suggest that it's one robust pathway.

Of course, there are likely multiple pathways to feeling understood; we're not claiming that we've found "the one." So, we need to examine this question in other contexts, like in the workplace, for example, and with different types of content beyond personality and emotions, like goals and thoughts, to map out a more comprehensive understanding of "understanding."

Do you have plans for follow-up research? Where would you like to see research on felt understanding go in the future?

I think it's very important to start more closely examining accurate personality and emotion perceptions in the workplace. Many problems on work teams arise due to interpersonal tensions and conflict, and these tensions tend to be rooted in misperceptions. A focus on adjusting misperceptions is especially important as organizations grow more and more diverse, to foster felt understanding for everyone to feel included. By shedding light on how people must perceive each other to promote feeling understood in organizations, we can develop concrete strategies, and eventually workshops, to create more psychologically safe and effective work environments.

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