Seeking First to Understand in the Midst of Turmoil

As we come out of a very drawn out and emotional election week, I am reminded of the importance of effective communication. Experts are saying that the United States has not been this divided since the Civil War and it doesn’t take expertise to see the effects of the polarization. 

Recently I have been hearing about more and more marital conflict, friendships lost, and tension in families due to differing opinions. It seems as though navigating these differences has been a massive challenge for many and, unfortunately, relationships have ended as a result. 

Although it is not a fix-all solution, I have recently been drawn to rereading Stephen Covey’s popular book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. In the book, Covey outlines Habit 5, which he calls “Seek first to understand, then be understood.” This concept struck me as particularly relevant given the current situation. 

Covey brings attention to the idea that most people listen with the intent to reply rather than the intent to understand. When the goal of the conversation is simply to get our point across, rather than understanding the perspective of another, it tends to lead to prematurely deciding what the other person is attempting to communicate, judgment regarding whether they are right or wrong, and quick rejection if their ideas or opinions are not in line with ours. This has the potential to quickly lead to more and more polarization rather than reconciliation. Sound familiar? 

Covey, however, makes the argument that when we seek to understand first then we become much more effective at communication and navigating conflict. Listening, really listening, before we speak can help facilitate empathy, help us to stay present, and limits emotional reactivity. Surprisingly to some, seeking first to understand also makes us more effective in influencing others.  

You may be wondering, “How do I do this?” It is actually pretty simple. The idea is to listen first, asking clarifying questions as you go to really try to understand where the other person is coming from. The challenge is to wait until you truly feel as though you have an understanding of what they are trying to communicate before you speak.

Reference

Covey, S. R. (2004). The 7 habits of highly effective people: Restoring the character ethic ([Rev. ed.].). New York: Free Press.

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