Seek First to Understand

“Seek first to understand” is one of my personal commandments.

Whenever I get myself into a tricky situation, it’s where I fall back to in order to get myself out of trouble. It constantly amazes me how far afield I can get myself when I forget this primary adage.

I pride myself on being a very good listener, but it’s a not a superpower. I have to work at it. Sometimes, deep into a conflict, I have to consciously turn it on. I have learned the importance of taking a step back to truly understand the point someone else is making. Usually, there is such richness that I initially missed when I as I  formulated my “wise” response, instead of listening, and really understanding.

Each of us have many incredible stories to tell. Some people may be better storytellers than others, but each of us has wisdom to be shared. I’ve found that all it takes to get someone to tell me a story that is important to their being is having a kind ear. I like to lean in to be sure I catch every word. I also like to ask questions along the way, to check to be sure I am getting a correct understanding of what’s being said.

In asking such questions, I’m cautious not to interrupt the flow of the story. Some people get distracted by questions, and lose their place. In that case, I know to save my questions until the end of the story.

In his book, Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, Steven Covey’s adds on to the adage “Seek first to understand,”, “and then to be understood.” While this is also true for me, I think some people might mistake it to mean, “Speak your piece.” Just because we’ve listened to someone’s story doesn’t give us the right to then unload our opinions on them.

A friend of mine, who is a professional speaker, is excellent at “listening” while he speaks. He’s constantly aware of whether what he is saying is being understood as intended. If he’s not getting positive non-verbal confirmations of being understood, he modifies his delivery, or stops speaking altogether and checks in with the audience.

I think this applies especially as one ages. It’s easy not to keep up with the latest lingo, or the latest fashion. If I don’t understand the context of something said, I inquire, seeking to understand what was meant. It’s amazing to me how often things get misconstrued with written words in an e-mail or text, as opposed to spoken ones, where we hear the tone and facial emphasis. It can save friendships to ask.