I’ve recently come to see the impact that deep understanding has 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 ways or through philosophical or deep communication models.

How might we expand this human possibility to give meaning to our lives?

A Developmental Pathway

Mutual understanding stems from a deep interest in others and a radical openness that honors what arises. It cultivates new levels of awareness, resulting in dissolving boundaries and creating intentional meaning between self and others.

Mutual understanding exists as part of our human experience beyond our cognitive or conceptual notions of individual understanding. Given the nature of connectivity, which involves experiences, perspectives, and meaning, cultivating mutual understanding will soon 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), affective self (X+Y), and Intentional and embodied self (X+Y+Z).

  • X = Our cognitive self clarifies our thoughts and perceptions with logical reasoning and objective evidence and knowledge. We discern circumstances and concepts to develop a grounded understanding.
  • X+Y = With our cognitive self (X), we add context, emotions, and experiences to develop our affective self (Y) and thus create a shared understanding.
  • X+Y+Z = We become intentional (X) and cultivate radical openness (Y) to receive and internalize perspectives and meaning. We develop our intentional/ embodied self (Z) to cultivate mutual understanding.

A Fuller View

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

Grounded understanding (X)

This stage of understanding begins with our cognitive self. Here, we achieve a norm-content view to become effective at discerning circumstances.

  • We develop an understanding grounded in our cognition to observe facts, knowledge, and evidence to gain an objective view of reality.
  • With reason, we clarify our focus on observing and analyzing circumstances accurately to conceptualize and manage events and conditions.
  • Grounded understanding defines boundaries and situations to become fully present for managing events and ourselves.

The work at this level is fundamental to developing a disciplined focus to observe facts and question evidence. This level of grounding shapes what’s possible at the next stage. We arrive at a grounded understanding to manage content and navigate conditions efficiently and effectively.

Shared understanding (X+Y)

At this second stage, we increase our awareness of our affective self. Here, we achieve a reflective-action view to create context.

  • We include our experiences and values to express our voice and relate to others.
  • We add context by reflecting on shared norms, values, and interests.
  • Shared understanding emerges from shared experiences that support us in being related.

X+Y relies on the previous stage (X) to enhance how we relate to circumstances. We tune into a shared vision or larger context and communicate with others. We arrive at a shared understanding to anticipate and coordinate actions effectively with others, often from shared values and deeper relatedness.

Mutual understanding (X+Y+Z)

This third stage emerges by being with others from an embodied self or awareness. Here, we achieve a meaning-context view, as we experience multiple perspectives within an intersubjective field.

  • This stage develops a shared language (thoughts/meanings) discovering our worldviews (perspectives, ideologies, attitudes, etc.) for learning together.
  • We cultivate a radical openness that cultivates an intentional presence and interconnectedness, “in-betweenness,” or communion with others.
  • This stage requires dancing with elements from a grounded understanding to be fully present (X) and a shared understanding to be fully related (X+Y). We can be with the possibility that arises and create intentional meaning (X+Y+Z).

Mutual understanding creates a shared meaning for discovering together. We arrive at mutual understanding to tune into a deeper meaning (cultural, ideological, or perspectival) to discern contexts or open possibilities.

Definition + Experience + Meaning

Each stage of understanding is constituted by specific components:

1. grounded understanding: cognition through definition and agreements.
2. shared understanding: affective life through experience and
3. mutual understanding: intentional self through meaningfulness and possibility.

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

Grounded understanding

Here, I am concerned with shared agreements based on facts and rules that 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 to assess the situation, analyze the data and information, connect the dots (who to call first, second, and third, and what information to secure), and 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 a context.

Last week, I left two notebooks at Starbucks, where I visit to develop ideas and edit, and 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 restaurant may have thrown those notes away. However, Starbucks staff has been trained to understand why, beyond its lattes and lunches, customers consume their brand.

Consider that this worker knew exactly where to look and what to expect. They likely figured this out through shared agreements, identified priorities, and best practices on how to operationalize purpose as their primary relationship to their customers.

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

Mutual understanding

Through intentional learning and discovery, we create shared meaning in our lives that resonates with others.

We become more open to learning and more interested in communion with others. We discover perspectives, attitudes, and interests that shape what’s happening in a way that moves what’s going on with us, and vice versa.

This shared interest, resonance, and interconnectedness dissolves me as a resume of accomplishments and identities and reveals the qualities likely to manifest in my eulogy.

Which parts of my identity do I highlight, and which parts do I access to cultivate deeper connections? How am I experienced by others? How do I impact others?

Can I imagine possibility and co-create with others? Can I enter an intersubjective space between myself and others? Am I interested in and able to hear others’ stories for no other reason than to deepen my connections?


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

  • I can discern a grounded 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 intentional and interconnected.

Planting myself on this journey not only opens me up to clients, friends, and family, but it also offers access to our stories—mine and yours. More importantly, I can begin to imagine the gaps between mine and another’s world.

Paradoxically, with mutual understanding, I need not fully understand any gaps. I can accept and embrace the gaps and imagine possibilities to bridge new understanding.

Reading Time: 7.5 min. Digest Time: 12 min

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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.