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It’s a natural human inclination to empathise, and to try to understand others. We don’t all do it equally, and some don’t seem to do it very well, but the tendency is there. Empathy is not unique to humans but it is certainly one of our defining characteristics which, among others things, enables us to care for others and share with them.  It’s a small step from there to believe that we understand others too, but can we?

There are hundreds different approaches to therapy, each with its own set of theories about human nature and change. This naturally leads to some fierce debates and as you can imagine, it can get quite territorial (therapists, whose job i is to help others change, seem quite unwilling or unable to change their views about the best way to go about things, but that’s another matter).

One thing we are all agreed on though, is that we don’t know why people do what they do. We can guess, theorise and speculate, but we cannot know what motivates another person in their actions and behaviours. There may be armies of experts out there who pretend that they can, but they can’t.

Which brings me back to understanding others. When struggling with a difficulty in a relationship people often say things like “I just want to understand why…” or “If only I knew what made them do it…”. The need to reduce the uncertainty of not knowing can produce explanations which, though plausible, are still only guesses.

The ability to ‘read’ others is in almost all of us, but we shouldn’t fool ourselves by thinking that we can truly understand how they think or how they experience things. Most of the time we succeed in persuading each other that we can, but it is one of those unquestioned ideas that float about us.

If you want to know why someone behaves the way they do, ask them. Rather than making assumptions – which could well be the wrong ones – enquire. But don’t hold your breath, they may not be able or willing to tell you.

See also

How to be Comfortable with Uncertainty

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