Seeking first to Understand


In a world of instant Internet feedback, we have become addicted to approval. Beyond acceptance, appreciation and attention, one of an individual’s greatest desires is to be understood.

Just as giving is a precursor to receiving, seeking first to understand is essential to being understood. And active listening is the key.

Here’s why:

We like people who “get” us. The active listener who seeks to understand creates an environment where the other person is more likely to be open about true feelings, motivations and fears.

What we receive is often a direct reflection of what we are giving. If we are kind, kindness is what reflects back. If we have a genuine desire to understand and empathize with another person, that person will be more open to our point of view.

Much of our suffering can be directly connected to misunderstandings. Shakespeare’s tragedies are filled with them. They fuel arguments and anger. Misunderstandings can poison relationships and in acute situations, endanger lives.

The world needs thoughtful people. Those who can avoid being triggered by emotion, those who are willing to take a deep dive into what experiences drive the beliefs of others.

Those who seek to understand rise to the top.

Seekers find win-win scenarios, or in a worst case, least objectionable alternatives that form meaningful compromise.

Seeking first to understand then to be understood may be the fifth of Stephen Covey’s Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, but to Dr. Covey himself, it is the most important. “If I were to summarize in one sentence the single most important principle I have learned in the field of interpersonal relations,” he wrote, “it would be this: Seek first to understand, then to be understood.”

We tend to listen “autobiographically”, based on our own experience. Our questions are constructed based on our frame of reference. And we often are jumping ahead in our minds, building a response without fully comprehending what the other person may be saying. Or as Thomas Gilovich so aptly puts it:

“We seek opinions that are likely to support what we want to be true.”

One of the best examples of seeking to understand was taught to me by a young woman I met during mock interviews for special needs adults who were learning how to grow their careers. I don’t remember the question I asked, but I’ll never forget her answer.

“Can I have a moment to think about that?”

After a pause she said, “Tell me more about what what your question means.”

It shifted my whole thought process. I began to grasp the set of tools and experiences she brought to the table and imagine communicating in a way she could understand. I felt a connection. I felt more than empathy. I felt admiration. And I really wanted to help her succeed.

Seeking first to understand opens the door to mutual respect, to generosity, and trust. It can also reveal misconceptions we may have about ourselves. As it is written in A Course in Miracles, “Your task is not to seek for love, but merely to seek and find all the barriers within yourself that you have built against it.”

Seeking to understand can unshackle you from unproductive paradigms, revealing new vistas of awareness and opportunity. And it all begins with listening.