Knowing Yourself: How to Improve Your Understanding of Others

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Developing a better understanding of yourself may also improve your capacity to better understand the thoughts and feelings of other people, a new study from Germany suggests.

Researchers found that adults who participated in a psychology-training program to enhance their "perspective-taking" — a term psychologists use to describe the ability to understand another person's "inner world," meaning his or her thoughts, beliefs, emotions and personality — became better at understanding themselves as well as understanding others, according to the findings published online (May 16) in the Journal of Cognitive Enhancement.

The study shows there is some truth to the saying that, "You need to know yourself to understand other people," said Lukas Herrmann, one of the study authors and a researcher in social neuroscience at the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciencesin Leipzig, Germany. [10 Things That Make Humans Special]

Getting to know yourself more fully is not just an ego trip, Herrmann suggested. Learning how to better put yourself in other people's shoes is a useful social skill in everyday life that could also be important in promoting more cross-cultural understanding in society, the study authors wrote.   

Looking inward

In the study, the researchers looked at data collected from two groups, of about 80 adults each, who all lived in Germany and were between ages 20 and 55.

The training included a three-day retreat followed by weekly 2-hour meetings over the next three months. The participants were taught skills to develop their inner awareness. For example, they learned how to do a daily meditation exercise in which they observed the thoughts that popped into their heads without getting emotionally involved in them.

This meditation practice was designed to help participants gain more insights into the workings of their mind without reacting to it.

A second skill the participants learned was how to identify and classify the "inner parts" of their own psyche; for example, their "inner critics," "managers," "protectors," "helpers" or "optimists." These may also include "happy parts," "fear parts" or "vulnerable parts."

Participants were asked to name the "inner parts" that would be activated in themselves in everyday situations, such as when playing with a child or giving an important presentation at work, Herrmann said.

During one session, the participants worked in pairs to complete an exercise in which one of them acted as the speaker and selected a recent situation that happened to him or her, but described it from the point of view of one of their inner parts. During the exercise, the other participant listened and tried to guess the inner parts the speaker was portraying, an activity that teaches perspective-taking, or understanding another person's thoughts. 

For example, one participant may have been sitting in a traffic jam and wound up late for a meeting, and in real life his "inner manager" took over his actions and behaviors. But for the sake of this exercise, he would be asked to reframe the situation from the perspective of his "inner happy child," Herrmann said. [10 Things You Didn't Know About You]

By practicing this exercise regularly, participants learn how to detach from the inner parts that are automatically activated in certain situations, Herrmann told Live Science. This allows them to deal more flexibly with their typical behavior patterns, he said.

Understanding others

The study found that the more participants recognized these internal aspects of personality, the better they became in understanding the intentions and beliefs of other people.

Interestingly, participants who could identify a higher number of negative inner parts of personality were more likely to have greater improvements in understanding other people, the researchers found.

It was surprising that recognizing positive inner parts was not linked with a greater understanding of other people, Herrmann said. It seems that for most participants, identifying the negative inner parts was what really required dedication and skill, he explained.

To face your own negative inner parts, you may need to overcome inner resistance against some painful emotions, so perhaps that's why people who did face these parts developed a better understanding others, Herrmann suggested.

Although not everyone may have access to the type of training used in this study, there are other ways that people might gain similar skills and insights.

Practices such as meditation, mindfulness training, as well as other forms of self-inquiry can all be valuable experiences, Herrmann said.

But in his opinion, some of the best ways to improve your understanding of others is by "being curious, suspending preconceptions, asking questions and listening," Herrmann said.

Originally published on Live Science.

Live Science Contributor

Cari Nierenberg has been writing about health and wellness topics for online news outlets and print publications for more than two decades. Her work has been published by Live Science, The Washington Post, WebMD, Scientific American, among others. She has a Bachelor of Science degree in nutrition from Cornell University and a Master of Science degree in Nutrition and Communication from Boston University.