Do you have any autopilot words or phrases? Like when someone asks you how work is going and your go-to response is to tell them that you’re so busy. Or when you meet someone new and your default intro question is to ask them what they do. 

Lately I’ve noticed that my autopilot sentence starter is, I don’t understand… I don’t understand people who text and walk, and then walk right into me! I don’t understand drivers who speed up and cut me off only to be stopped beside me at the next red light. I don’t understand why my dog sometimes eats poo. And more recently, I don’t understand anti-maskers and COVID-deniers. My list goes on and on. Depending on where you stand on any of these topics, your response to me may range from, “Hey, I’m with you, friend,” to, “Ooh, aren’t you judgy mc-judgerson!”

The irony of this autopilot phrase is that I am someone who really believes that we should seek to understand situations and people. I’m generally known for saying things like, “Lead with curiosity,” “What is the story you’re telling yourself?” and, “What is the full story?” So I kinda feel hypocritical leading with, I don’t understand

For me, it has been interesting to finally notice and unpack this sentence starter. To clarify, I’m not talking about situations where I say, “I don’t understand x,” and follow it with, “Help me to understand x.” That would be what curious me does. I’m talking about the version of me who uses I don’t understand… as a full-stop statement. Why do I go there? What do I get from going there? What bothers me about this? Have I always had this tendency? Has it emerged more intensely during these COVID times? What is a better option?

So, why do I go there? How does this sentence starter seemingly serve me?

It’s an easy autopilot phrase to use when I am frustrated. Leading with, I don’t understand… gives me permission to ignore my emotions and be lazy with my observations. When I notice someone or something that I can’t make immediate sense of, the fastest way my mind deals with it is to put it in my I-don’t-understand bucket. That’s fine if it is a situation or person that I am not ready to deal with/talk with or if it is something/someone that really doesn’t impact me at all. The problem is that I am ignoring the frustration of it all. I get that not all frustrations are mine to deal with and that some don’t deserve my energy. Either way, if I don’t name the emotion that is frustration and then put it to rest (either through effort or choosing to let it go), then it is likely going to sit with me in some unhealthy way. 

It’s a conversation-starter.  And again, I’m not referring to the healthy way of using this phrase (I don’t understand followed by help me to understand). When I say, “I don’t understand…,” it is generally not to the person that I’m making the comment about. When I say it, I am generally saying it about a person or situation. In this scenario, “I don’t understand” can be a great lead-in to a highly engaging vent session. It’s a lot like gossip or high school drama; it allows me to bond with someone else over our shared frustration or disdain for someone or something else. Bonding is great and venting can feel energizing, but if I don’t address the real source of my frustration, this can be a real doom loop.

It’s a conversation-ender. I’m generally not one to end a conversation in a huff, but if I wanted to, a dramatic, “I don’t understand,” followed by a door slam or a phone receiver slam would definitely have the desired effect. Okay, so I’m really dating myself here with the phone receiver slam reference. No one slams the phone down anymore, but you get the point. In this scenario, “I don’t understand,” closes off any possibility of conversation or explanation.

And, why does all of this bother me? What is a better approach?

It is inconsistent with who I am. As I mentioned earlier, I am someone who seeks to understand so it feels weird not to extend my benefit-of-the-doubt thinking to all people and situations. I get that it might not be realistic to give every person and every situation the full benefit of the doubt, but I can start becoming more aware of when I use this phrase and then follow it up with a few more thoughts like: do I want to understand? If yes, what will help me understand? If no, how can I let it go? 

Or what if I replaced “I don’t understand…” with, “I’m frustrated by….” Would that lead to a different kind of conversation or reaction? I think so. It’s like naming an emotion; once you name it, you can then choose how you want to respond. 

I would be bummed knowing that someone applied that phrasing to something I said or did. I can definitely think of a few situations where someone didn’t understand me, made erroneous assumptions about me, or didn’t give me the benefit of the doubt. It sucks. So rather than following, “I don’t understand…” with a negative narrative, what if I reframed the situation and considered an alternative story?

Maybe the person texting and walking was hurrying to reach their mom who had just been in a car accident and at the same time, was reassuring her via text. Maybe the speedy driver had a passenger in the car who had just broken their ankle and they were driving them to emergency (True story. I was that broken-ankle passenger many years ago). Maybe the anti-maskers and COVID-deniers have had multiple negative experiences with our healthcare system. And maybe my dog needs additional nourishment so he looks to find it any way he can. Okay no, I still don’t get the poo eating. 

I think what I’m saying to myself is that, in the end, imagining a story that allows me to empathize with others is a healthier approach than a full-stop I don’t understand. Empathizing with others doesn’t mean that I have to engage, but it can go a long way in emptying my, I-don’t-understand bucket.

Ahh. Now, I understand.

Do you have any autopilot words or phrases? What might be different if you took the time to unpack when and why you use them? What might you replace your autopilot words and phrases with?