Habit 5. Seek first to understand…then to be understood.

Here’s some of what Stephen Covey has to say:

“Communication is the most important skill in life. You spend years learning how to read and write, and years learning how to speak. But what about listening? What training have you had that enables you to listen so you really, deeply understand another human being? Probably none, right?

If you’re like most people, you probably seek first to be understood; you want to get your point across. And in doing so, you may ignore the other person completely, pretend that you’re listening, selectively hear only certain parts of the conversation or attentively focus on only the words being said, but miss the meaning entirely. So why does this happen? Because most people listen with the intent to reply, not to understand. You listen to yourself as you prepare in your mind what you are going to say, the questions you are going to ask, etc. You filter everything you hear through your life experiences, your frame of reference. You check what you hear against your autobiography and see how it measures up. And consequently, you decide prematurely what the other person means before he/she finishes communicating. Do any of the following sound familiar?

“Oh, I know just how you feel. I felt the same way.” “I had that same thing happen to me.” “Let me tell you what I did in a similar situation.”

Because you so often listen autobiographically, you tend to respond in one of four ways:

Evaluating: You judge and then either agree or disagree.
Probing: You ask questions from your own frame of reference.
Advising: You give counsel, advice, and solutions to problems.
Interpreting: You analyze others’ motives and behaviors based on your own experiences.

You might be saying, “Hey, now wait a minute. I’m just trying to relate to the person by drawing on my own experiences. Is that so bad?” In some situations, autobiographical responses may be appropriate, such as when another person specifically asks for help from your point of view or when there is already a very high level of trust in the relationship.”

Stephen Covey’s not the only person thinking along these lines, is he? Here are some similar thoughts, from familiar sources:

“Never criticize a man until you’ve walked a mile in his moccasins” – American Indian proverb.

“The power of intuitive understanding will protect you from harm all of your days.” – Lao Tzu.

“Understanding is a two-way street.” – Eleanor Roosevelt.

“The noblest pleasure is the joy of understanding.” – Leonardo da Vinci.

“Peace cannot be kept by force; it can only be achieved by understanding.” – Albert Einstein.

“Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute understanding from people of ill will.” – Martin Luther King, Jr.

And of course this line of thinking didn’t originate with them, did it? It goes back a long way:

“Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become angry.” – James 1:19, NIV.

With apologies to everyone, from all walks of life, here are some sweeping and therefore unfair generalizations on two groups.

Political leaders. Based on what you and I see on the Internet, or on the evening news, or in the newspapers, they seem to be harping on each other’s faults, muscling to their way to the microphone and the spotlight, eager to share their point of view. They seem to have egos as big as the great outdoors. They don’t seem to be listening to us or each other.

But the truth is, if they don’t go to the trouble of understanding you and me and what we want, they never get elected.

They understand us all too well. They seek first to understand. They listen to us and what we say and how we think and feel. Then they look us in the eye, and say, “I (fill in the blank with the name of your favorite politician, or your most hated one…it doesn’t matter), and I alone, am the embodiment of your hopes and aspirations, as you’ve just espoused them.”

And then we vote them into office.

Those of us debating climate science. Based on what you and I see on the Internet, or on the evening news, or in the newspapers, we seem to be harping on each other’s faults, muscling to our way to the microphone and the spotlight, eager to share our point of view. We seem to have egos as big as the great outdoors. We don’t seem to be listening to each other.

And the truth? We couldn’t be elected dogcatcher.


In closing, let’s look at one other group.

Those of us putting out weather warnings. We’re struggling too, aren’t we? Our community has made such an effort over the past century to improve our understanding of the weather and our prediction of weather hazards. We’re much better at this than we used to be back in the day. But when we seek to be understood… “Hey! The hurricane’s coming on shore! The tornado’s at the west end of town!” that message seems to fall on deaf ears. People still die, in tragic numbers. Belatedly, we’re waking up to the reality that as meteorologists that we haven’t fully appreciated what’s going on in our society and in the heads of the people who comprise it as these hazards draw near. People are preoccupied with other daily concerns…work, the kids, shopping. People are speaking other languages. [People think meteorologists think another language!] People find our visuals confusing. They don’t understand that siren. They’re talking, but regardless of what Mark Twain may have thought, they not talking about the weather. They’re talking about everything but the weather. Politics. Sports. Movie stars. The economy. Their health.

At its core, the whole Weather-Ready Nation approach is an effort to switch this around, to…

…seek first to understand… then to be understood.

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One Response to Habit 5. Seek first to understand…then to be understood.

  1. Michael Cunningham says:

    Re weathermen not being understood, a comment in The Economist on nuclear power has broader application:

    “But if nuclear power teaches one lesson, it is to doubt all stories of technological determinism. It is not the essential nature of a technology that matters but its capacity to fit into the social, political and economic conditions of the day.

    To communicate, you need to be able to assess “the social, political and economic conditions of the day.” As Australian PM, Bob Hawke understood this: he was a consensus builder. As an economic policy adviser, I didn’t understand it enough. I could analyse problems, develop solutions and present options in such a way that their respective merits were clear and a choice could be made. But the context was that decision-makers weren’t looking for first-best solutions, they were concerned with self-interest, particular constituencies and the relatively short term, and I didn’t address those needs. I sought to be rigorous, economically sound and impartial, and to serve the broad public interest. I’d have been more effective if I’d been able to present things in a way which took account of the less purist approach of my audience.

    How you apply this to getting weather warnings heeded and acted on, I’ll leave to you, Bill, perhaps you’ll fare better than I did!

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