July 14, 2007

You don't have to fully understand yourself or anyone else

Complete understanding of social phenomena is often not possible. Fortunately, it is also unnecessary. Solution-focused pioneer Steve de Shazer once said: "Real understanding is not possible; there are only useful and less useful misunderstandings." His partner Insoo Kim Berg said something in the same vain: "I don't ever expect anybody to understand me completely. Sometimes I don't understand myself or I may change my mind." Social psychologist Timothy Wilson, author of Strangers to ourselves, explains why it is not possible or useful to fully try to understand yourself. He explains that there is a hidden mental world of judgments, feelings, and motives that introspection may never show us: the adaptive unconscious. This is a set of pervasive, sophisticated mental processes that size up our worlds, set goals, and initiate action, all while we are consciously thinking about something else. Trying to completely understand ourselves can be a confusing and frustrating process. Trying to fully understand another person of to confront him can be equally confusing and useless. Maybe your perspective on him is essentially unaccessible to the other person. He may simply not be able to see what you see. In the best case he may respectfully listen to you and take into consideration what you say. But it is hard to really accept what you cannot perceive. Perhaps we have to let go of the idea of complete understanding (at least when we are not doing science). Solution-focused change offers useful perspective. In SF, more important than having a absolute picture of what is true, is finding out what works. What you need is to understand just enough about anything to make progress.

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