In Stephen Covey’s book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, the fifth habit is to “seek first to understand, then to be understood.” This applies to marriages, friends, neighbors, co-workers and every person we have relationships with. I was listening recently to the Tony Robbins Power Talk where he interviewed Stephen Covey and discussed his 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. They all apply to relationships and marriage, but when they started talking about habit 5, the relevance to relationships hit me hard. How often when we get into an argument or disagreement with someone all we want is to have the other person try to understand our point of view. We talk to reply, not to understand. The point of habit 5 is if we first do our best to really understand the other person, and validate their being, our being understood will take care of itself.
Seek First to Understand
When I visit Facebook, I do not agree with all the posts my friends make. Recently a friend who is a Post Office employee submitted an article about the Post Office and the hard decisions it had to make in an effort to be profitable. I immediately made some snarky remark about the Post Office losing $5 billion dollars last year and a good example of big government problems. Soon afterwards I was joined by another fellow making similar remarks. A couple of folks soon commented the financial issues were due to a Congressional requirement to pre-fund future benefits, which is exclusive to the Post Office. To make a long story short, I then did some research and found I was incorrect in my initial assessment and ultimately had to offer my humble apologies. If I had first sought to understand the situation, it would have saved me eating some humble pie.
I visited one of my favorite blogs this morning. It’s from a pastor who writes some excellent material about marriage and relationships. The comment section was abuzz with folks berating their husbands or wives and the problems they cause in the marriage. Some of the folks my heart goes out to because of what they have had to endure. Others I wanted to grab by the shoulders and rattle them until they understood what they were saying. Most clearly wanted their spouse to understand them. I wonder, however, how much effort they made to understand their spouse? In times of hurt it is easy to blame. It is then we need to double our efforts in understanding others. Like my mistake with the Post Office situation, if we all can make every effort to understand the other person first, it will help the situation immensely.
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The Benefits of Understanding Others First
When we first seek to understand, then to be understood, we will reap many rewards.
First, we will gain true insight into how our spouse, friend, or co-worker feels and thinks. That is invaluable information and will often clear up certain misconceptions we may have.
Second, our actions will show the other person we value them for who they are and what they believe. It doesn’t mean we agree with them. It shows we made the effort to empathize with them and understand where they are coming from.
Third, it puts us in a position to have true synergy with them. We may not agree on the issue, but our effort to understand them puts us in the position to drive towards a satisfactory resolution.
Fourth, once we make the effort and demonstrate our understanding, it naturally leads to the other person making efforts to understand our point of view. We may have to ask that they make the effort, but you may be surprised at how often it comes naturally after our efforts are made.
The Source of Seek First to Understand, Then to be Understood
While Stephen Covey popularized the phrase in his book, it is generally accepted that St. Francis of Assisi as the originator. There is some debate about it, but the Prayer of St. Francis is where it is most often attributed.
Put it Into Motion
The next time you are having an issue with someone and recognize it’s not going anywhere, pause for a moment and reply back with something like this:
I want to understand this. I’m sorry, but I’m just not grasping where you are coming from yet. Help me to understand. How can you say it differently or give a specific example that may help?
Stephen Covey’s book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People is a highly recommended book. With well over 25 million copies sold, it and the many variations that came afterwards are excellent books to have and digest.