Tuesday, September 14, 2004

Seeking to Understand

Seeking to Understand

Among seven habits for highly effective people expounded by Stephen Covey in his now classic book, my favourite is Habit No. 5: Seek first to understand, then to be understood.

I think if everyone learns to cultivate this particular habit, a lot of the friction, anger and animosity that we see around us can be greatly reduced. It is a difficult thing to do though, because all of us have a tendency to want to pass quick judgement on others and condemn people whom we think are incompetent, stupid or inconsiderate. We prefer to voice our own opinions rather than to listen to others.

By seeking to understand first, we are actually giving people the benefit of the doubt. Admittedly we are often apprehensive of doing so because it makes us feel like we are yielding to others. In my opinion, if we really think we are right, we shouldn't fear; let others state their case--even if they are wrong, it is also useful to understand the thinking process that goes behind their erroneous opinion.

The habit of seeking first to understand is one that comes naturally if we are eager to learn. There's always something that we can learn from others. The biggest sin that we can commit is to assume too much and to fail to notice things that we should be aware of, simply because we are too preoccupied with own opinions. As illustrated in the famous Zen parable of the over-flowing cup; we must empty our minds first, let go of all judgement before we can claim that we are willing to seek understanding.

A good salesman is not someone who talks non-stop. He is one who knows how to listen to his customers first: What is considered a win from the customer's perspective? If you help the customer to win, it will automatically translate to a win for you.

By seeking to understand first, you make the process of being understood a lot easier.

A father once complained to Stephen Covey:

Father: "I don't understand my kid. He doesn't listen to me at all".
Covey: "Let me restate what you just said: You don't understand your son because he won't listen to you?"
Father: "That's right"
Covey: "Let me try again: You don't understand your son because he won't listen to you?"
Father: (Impatient) "That's what I said"
Covey: "I thought that to understand a person, you needed to listen to him"
Father: ???

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