Thursday, August 07, 2008

Understanding Before Being Understood

One of the Seven Habits of Highly Effective People is to "Seek First to Understand, Then to Be Understood." The idea is that before we can fix a problem, we have to understand what's going on. This involves empathetic listening, which is a skill that the majority of us have not cultivated very well.

I know that I have long been in the habit of listening with the intention of replying rather than understanding. My empathy is too often limited to relating someone else's experience to my own. But sometimes, I cannot see where my experience and the other person's experience intersect. It is as if we are from different planets, or maybe even different galaxies!

This is where the empathetic listening comes into play. The times when our opponent's point-of-view seems the most foreign and far-fetched are precisely the times when we must seek to understand first.

I'm far from perfect at this skill but I'm working on it. It's especially hard for me to try to see things from the perspective of those who disagree with what I consider matters of human dignity and respect. Ironically, I have trouble affording those who disagree the dignity and respect that they fail to show others. So I was particularly impressed by this letter from a librarian to a patron who didn't want the library to have a children's book with a gay wedding on the shelf. This librarian's letter is a model for the level of understanding that I hope to someday attain.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I often feel like my empathy and listening skills are up there among what makes me such a patient and understanding caretaker (I often had the sneaking suspicion that I sometimes understood the toddler I cared for in at least a different way from his mom...), but I definitely agree that it can be particularly hard to be empathetic with people who we see as lacking in matters of human dignity and respect. In particular, it can be really hard to show empathy with those who use religious reasons to argue for exerting control over other people's lifestyles.

I am pretty impressed by how long the librarian's letter was...he really took the effort to try to make the argument to the patron that I'm sure you and I agree with. If it were me, I'm not sure I would have gone into the founding fathers' vision for America, instead it would have been easy to just assume this parent was a lost cause and patiently explain why their place of influence was in discussion with their child rather than in what books were at the library for all patrons to share in.