I’ve recently seen the impact of deep understanding on strategy, culture, performance, and connection. Thus, here, I will introduce the term mutual understanding for exploration.

In my research, I have found it challenging to grok the concept of mutual understanding. It is usually described in cognitive or conceptual modeling via philosophical or deep communication models.

How might we expand mutual understanding as a human possibility to create meaning, access insight, and invite deep connections?

A Developmental Pathway

Mutual understanding stems from a deep interest in others and an openness that honors what arises. It cultivates new levels of awareness, dissolves boundaries, and co-creates intentional meaning between self and others.

Mutual understanding exists as part of our human experience beyond our conceptual understanding. Given the nature of connectivity, which involves experiences, perspectives, and meaning, cultivating mutual understanding will be in demand.

To begin, I will outline a pathway that involves three stages of progressive development, viewed here as three mindsets:

  • cognitive self (X) conceives conceptual understanding,
  • affective self (X+Y) develops shared understanding, and
  • mindful self (X+Y+Z) to cultivate mutual understanding.

X = Our cognitive self clarifies content and conditions with logical reasoning and objective evidence. Our discerning mind (X) develops and questions knowledge to ground conceptual understanding.

X+Y = With increased awareness, our affective self discerns (X) emotions and experiences. Our reflective mind (Y) connects with subjective experience to develop a shared understanding (XY).

X+Y+Z = Cultivating an interdependent awareness, our mindful self tunes into the interconnections between self and others (Y). Suspending certainty develops a spacious mind (Z) that discerns insight from a generative context. We co-create emergence and illuminate greater coherence to access mutual understanding (XYZ).

A Fuller View

We identify this developmental pathway from grounded understanding to shared understanding to mutual understanding.

Conceptual Understanding (X)

This stage of understanding develops the ability to apprehend, which involves an immediate and intuitive grasping of a concept or situation. With our cognitive self, we achieve a conceptual awareness to discern content, conditions, and circumstances.

  • Conceptual understanding distinguishes boundaries and shared agreements for managing events and ourselves.
  • We become grounded in observable facts, knowledge, and evidence to view reality objectively.
  • With reason, we clarify our focus on observing and analyzing circumstances accurately to manage events and conditions.

Conceptual understanding is fundamental to developing a disciplined focus on observing facts and questioning evidence. This level of understanding shapes what’s possible at the next stage. We can manage content and navigate conditions efficiently and effectively.

Shared Understanding (X+Y)

This second stage expands apprehending to develop an ability to comprehend, which involves distinguishing the meaning or true nature of an experience or concept. With our affective self, we cultivate an experiential awareness from a reflective view to discern a subjective understanding.

  • Shared understanding accesses shared experiences to support being related.
  • We access our interior world to cultivate an embodied self or awareness.
  • We reflect on shared language (thoughts/meanings), discover our worldviews (perspectives, assumptions, attitudes, etc.), and discern norms, values, and interests to relate to others.

Shared experiences rely on the previous stage (X) to distinguish circumstances. We tune into a shared vision or interests to relate with others. We anticipate and coordinate actions effectively, often from shared values and deeper connections.

Mutual Understanding (X+Y+Z)

In this third stage, the ability to comprehend supports a foundation for interconnection, which involves connecting with shared meaning from an interdependent awareness. We suspend certainty to create space for discerning context as we experience multiple perspectives within an intersubjective field.

  • Mutual understanding develops shared meaning from openness and interconnectedness.
  • This stage requires dancing with elements from a conceptual understanding to be grounded (X) and a shared understanding to be related (X+Y).
  • We foster spaciousness and flow to be with emergence and possibility (X+Y+Z).

Mutual understanding creates a shared space for discovering together. We reach a mutual understanding to tune into and discern contexts or open possibilities.


Stages of Understanding

Specific components constitute each stage of understanding:

1. Conceptual understanding: cognition through definition and agreements.
2. Shared understanding: affective life through reflection on experiences and
3. Mutual understanding: mindful living through creating context and possibility.

So, where are we in this three-dimensional model?

Conceptual Understanding

Here, I am concerned with shared agreements based on facts, rules, and conditions I can observe, discern, and communicate.

For example, if I am in a car accident, can I seek evidence to make my case and support my findings to move forward? This requires focus on assessing the situation, analyzing the data and information, and connecting the dots (who to call first, second, and third, and what information to secure). Then, act on the information promptly.

This level of understanding is used daily to manage content and deliver on promises to plan events and complete tasks.

With practice, this level will support me in becoming grounded and expand my capacity to predict, which I can hone to reach the next level: shared understanding.

Shared Understanding

Here, I can access a shared experience within shared contexts, norms, or values.

Last week, I left two notebooks at Starbucks, where I visit to develop ideas and edit. I nearly panicked. Those notes are priceless to me. In them, I write ideas for future blogs, curricula, and half-baked thoughts, which I reflect on often. The next morning, I called Starbucks. The person listened to me, left for fewer than 60 seconds, and returned with, “Yeah, we have them here.”

Relieved, I appreciated our shared understanding.

Any other cafe may have trashed those notes. However, Starbucks staff has been trained to understand why customers consume their brand beyond its lattes and lunches. They understand that notes left on a table are not necessarily trash. They even have a place to put these.

Consider that this worker knew precisely where to look and what to expect. They likely figured this out through shared agreements, identified priorities, and best practices that operationalized the company’s primary customer relationship.

They have created a norm and relationship that connects Starbucks as a “third-way” place where people come to think, create, work, and belong. They “get it.” This shared understanding saved me.

Mutual Understanding

Mutual understanding involves interdependent awareness. We suspend beliefs, assumptions, and thoughts, moving beyond content to appreciate the importance of context.

Context is the space where we co-create experiences. Technically, this generative space sources the ‘to be’ aspect of creation, as in ‘to be’ the source of that which is created.

The spaciousness from interdependent awareness cultivates flow and interconnections that weave parts and wholes into shared meaning. This way of being expands our mind to view greater coherence and possibilities. It allows us to experience emergence as boundaries dissolve and blur and people “think together.”

These generative qualities support a mutuality that connects us deeply.

Practices of silence and stillness support suspending beliefs and assumptions to create spaciousness. Zen teacher, poet, and peace activist Thich Nhat Hanh shares his view on silence.

Silence is essential. We need silence, just as much as we need air, just as much as plants need light. If our minds are crowded with words and thoughts, there is no space for us.

With spaciousness, people listen deeply, and silence becomes pregnant with shared meaning. We become more open to discovery, emergence, and a deeper understanding that supports simply being with others.

Mutual understanding offers a palpable sense of oneness. It is common for people to complete each other’s sentences. In its presence, we cultivate possibilities.

Can I see possibilities and co-create with what emerges? Can I be with the space between myself and others? When I hear others’ stories, can I experience greater coherence and connect deeply?

Deep understanding, as Thích Nhất Hạnh says, is love’s other name; If you don’t understand, you can’t love.”


As human development professionals, how can we cultivate mutual understanding?

  • I can discern a conceptual understanding from shared agreements to become present.
  • I can create a shared understanding from shared experiences to become related.
  • I can cultivate a mutual understanding from shared meaning to become interconnected.

Planting myself on this journey opens me up to clients, friends, and family and offers access to our stories—mine and yours. More importantly, I can begin to imagine both the gaps and connections between my world and another’s. I can begin to enter a new understanding.

Musical genius Jimi Hendrix offers this profound insight.

Understanding is an avenue into love. It’s also an expression of love in action. When we enter into understanding we are entering into love… and “When the power of love overcomes the love of power, the world will know peace.

Reading Time: 5.5 min. Digest Time: 8 min

  • Revised: December 2023

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Tony Zampella is the learning designer at Bhavana Learning Group, which serves coaches, educators, and learning professionals and executives.

As an instructor, researcher, and designer of contemplative learning programs and practices, Tony’s work explores the human side of change by bringing wisdom to learning. His focus includes ontological inquiry, Integral meta-theory, and Buddhist psychology to sustain contemplative practice.