Explaining & Understanding

I learned something very important yesterday. It was a paradigm shift of tectonic proportions. I am still marveling…

I was explaining something to a friend. I probably spend more time than most people explaining things, and I tend to think of myself as pretty good at it. But I failed completely.

I was explaining a smiley face that I texted. It was the old-fashioned, pre-emoticon smiley face, a colon and a right-side parenthesis, like this: :)

My friend was not familiar with the symbol, and asked what it was. And so I explained, “It’s a smile, rotated 90 degrees counter-clockwise.”

This may make perfect sense to you. “Oh, a smile!” But in my friend’s understanding it became a frown.  He was expecting to hear what to do to make it a smile, which would have been to “rotate it 90 degrees clockwise.” Why had I sent him a frown?

What became clear to me is that I was explaining my own understanding, painting a picture of my own experience, not trying to impart a direct experience to my friend that would have been meaningful to him.

I realized that I tend to describe what I see from where I stand. I use lots of words, carefully arranged and expressed, and I rearrange them, and then maybe try a different set of words, and so on.  I’m convinced that if I explain accurately enough, thoroughly enough, my listener will understand. And by “understand” I mean they will have the same understanding that I have.

This is not correct. We understand only through our direct experience of a thing. A good teacher asks a question, or provides a metaphor, that brings the student’s thinking to a place where they encounter the idea for themselves.

My friend gave this example:  If you have a bunny in a hat, and you tell me all about the bunny and the hat, I will not understand what you understand. But if you hand me the hat and I find the bunny in it, then I will understand.  :)