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“How do I get to the other side of the river?”, called the traveller to the local on the opposite bank.


"You are on the other side of the river”, came the reply.


Two beliefs, both held true. 

Our position shapes our perception of reality. 




Understanding is difficult. It takes time and it takes effort. 


The metaphors we use reveal this slow burn. 


“I’m chipping away at it.” “Untangling the knots.” “The wheels are turning.”

Then eventually: “The pieces come together.” “The fog lifts.” “The clouds part.”




Understanding is embodied. Cascading neural circuits link the sensorial motor system to diverse brain regions whether we physically grasp an object or intellectually grasp a concept. 


Grasping is a key feature of understanding. New concepts and ideas might go over your head at first, but when you ‘get it’, you grasp it, and you hold tightly. Once held, it’s hard to let go, to loosen your grip on opinion and belief and be open to change.




In Old English, understandan was a compound of under, meaning among, within or between, and standan, meaning to stand, stay, abide. 


Reflecting on this etymology brings wisdom from the past to modern day sense-making. You’ve got to get amongst it – if you want to understand it.


Standing within or amongst situations offers perspectives you might not notice from other viewpoints. Maybe you are on the other side of the river?


While the act of understanding is cognitive; feeling understood is emotive. 


Feeling understood activates brain regions associated with social reward, connection and trust. 


Conversely, feeling misunderstood activates regions involved in social pain, disconnection and distrust. It’s a short hop from distrust to distress. Once a threat signal is detected, our rational prefrontal cortex goes offline, taking with it our ability to think clearly and understand different perspectives.


Understanding requires patience, not force. It arises through conversation, not argument. 


Change strategies centred on guided meta-cognition are proving both effective and enduring in changing hearts, minds and actions. Practices such as deep canvassing, street epistemology and motivational interviewing guide people, in a non-judgemental way, to think about their thinking; to understand their understandings. 


As people check in on the strength, origins and evidence for their own beliefs, they develop an awareness that, like them, other peoples’ understandings are shaped by their unique set of life circumstances and experiences. They loosen their grasp on tightly held beliefs and open their minds to new understandings. There are always two sides to a river.




Considered explanations are powerful catalysts for change because they create the conditions for understanding. Going beyond what and how, and always including a why, helps people grasp and comprehend the higher purpose of the change you seek to make. “It matters because…” is a simple inclusion that meshes the all-important (but often overlooked) why with the how and what of change. 




Go Deeper

Brooks, D. (2023). How to know a person: The art of seeing others deeply and being deeply seen. Penguin Random House.

Lakoff, G. (2014). Mapping the brain's metaphor circuitry: Metaphorical thought in everyday reason. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience 8, 1-13.  

McRaney, D. (2023). How minds change: The new science of belief, opinion and persuasion. Oneworld.

Morelli, S. A., Torre, J. B., & Eisenberger, N. I. (2014). The neural bases of feeling understood and not understood. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, 9, 1890-1896. 

© Trudi Ryan, Words for Change

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