The German word that’s changed how I see people

(Bonus: an exercise to go with it that you can do with kids)

Early on in my psychiatry training, I was exposed to two concepts that never actually came up in any exams. But they stuck in my head, because they helped make sense of something I’d observed as a generally practising doctor, and have proved insanely useful ever since.

The concepts were: Erklären and Verstehen.

What’s the verstehen here? (Photo: Izzy Gerosa)

Hold on, I’ll explain what they are in a minute. First off, they’re not crazy concepts psychiatrists came up with to confuse everyone. Thing is, a good part of the history of the field was dominated by the Germans, and as such we owe a number of terms to them. (Freud himself was Austrian, and as such also German-speaking.)

So anyway, what do these terms mean and why should they matter to you?

Well, erklären, to put it in a word, is about explanation, and verstehen is about experience.

I’ll unpack that with an example. Imagine you are a pregnant woman and you have had to go to the hospital because you noticed a bit of blood that got you worried. Imagine that the doctor says, after checking you out, listening to your baby’s heart, maybe doing a scan, that the baby appears to be fine, but you really should get some bedrest for a while.

That is erklären, an explanation of the situation, and on the face of it, the doctor has done a great job, as he or she is paid to do.

Except…

What if you are also a single mother of a four year old, and sole owner of a shop that happens to be your entire livelihood? And what if you’ve been trying to get a girl to help you run the shop when you need to be away, but you had to send the last one away just last week because she was pilfering your stock?

What then?

The doctor may feel good about having solved your problem, but seeing as your livelihood is at stake, the doctor’s prescription only creates a new problem.

That’s what verstehen is all about: trying to see things the way the other person does. Like what we usually call “empathy.”

You could think of verstehen as entering into the experience of the other person, into their story, to understand not just the general explanation of a situation, but its specific implications for this person.

Erklären is: “This is what’s going on.”

Verstehen is: “This is what it means for this person.”

An understanding of verstehen has often helped me understand why people won’t come to hospital when they’re ill, or won’t take their medicine when they do. It’s helped me at seeing where people I disagree with are coming from, and why they’re worth listening to. And by learning to understand others better, I’ve come to understand my own self better.

And before you think I’m knocking my medical colleagues (who, to be fair, are already struggling under the burden of societal expectations), this is something we could all stand to be a little better at.

What do you think his story might be? (Photo: Jean Gerber)

So here’s a little exercise for you, and you should consider making it a game with your kids, if you have (or are in charge of) any. (Trust me, they’ll love this.)

Next time you (and your kids) are out, make up stories. Pick out any random person on the road, and challenge yourself (or one of the kids with you) them to make up a story about them, using stuff they can observe about the person. Then repeat the process with another random person (and another kid) until you’re tired or everyone has had a go. (Feel free to offer a small prize for the best story—just be sure to be clear what the criteria are beforehand.)

Feel free to practice with the two images above. (Get it now?)

The point of this little exercise should be obvious: to train yourself (and them) to see these “random” people as not so random after all, but as persons, each with a background and context that, were you to know it, would change everything about how you see them.

Get your verstehen on.


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