Seek First to Understand, Then to Be Understood

This is Habit #5 in Stephen Covey’s “Seven Habits of Highly Effective People”.

How many times have you been in an argument with someone and walked away feeling completely misunderstood and not resolving anything? How many times have you put your own needs/opinion infront of the other person’s and did not take the time to fully understand what they are saying?

We are all human and we can all relate to each other on a human to human level (no matter how crazy you think the other person is). Some people are better at communicating their needs and feelings than others. Some people tend to get emotional, or defensive when in an argument. This is why it’s particularly important to really understand what they are saying.

Take this example of a typical house hold argument:

Person A: “Clean up the stove! You always leave a huge mess in the kitchen!”

Person B: “No I don’t always leave mess! You’re so uptight!”

Is this really about cleaning the stove? Or is this about something else?

As stated early, it may be hard for Person A to come out and say “I don’t feel you respect me in my house.” So instead they introduce the discussion with: “Clean up the stove! You always leave a huge mess in the kitchen!” If you respond back by yelling “No I don’t always leave mess! You’re so uptight!”, the event turns into a screaming contest and both parties walk away with frustration and resentment. Taking the time to listen empathetically and reflectively can help the other person to open up and reveal what the real problem is.

Let’s try handling this discussion in a different way:

Person A: “Clean up the stove! You always leave a huge mess in the kitchen!”

Person B: “So I understand that you feel I don’t clean the stove enough.”

Person A: “Well, I feel like every time I come in the kitchen there’s a huge mess that you left and I have to clean up when I have a million things to. My whole life isn’t cleaning up after you!”

Person B: “So you feel like you’re always cleaning up after me.”

Person A: “Yes, I feel like you always leave the house and leave a huge mess behind you expecting someone else to clean it up.”

Person B: “So you feel I expect you to clean up after me.”

Person A: “Yes. I feel that you don’t respect me and my time and expect me to clean up your mess.”

Now we know what the real issue is, Person A doesn’t feel respected by Person B because of their messes left behind. Now Person B can continue on the conversation knowing what they are actually talking about.

Person B: “I’m really sorry that you feel I don’t respect you. I respect you a great deal. The reason why I sometimes leave a mess in the morning is that I have an 8am class this semester and it’s been hard for me to get to bed early enough to wake up on time. Lately I’ve been feeling like I’m running late every morning, and because of this I’ll leave some dishes in the sink or a spot on the stove. My full intent is to clean it up as soon as I get home. I in no way expect anyone else to do it for me.”

Person A: “I can understand that. But it makes me feel anxious when the kitchen is dirty and I can’t cook my meals because of dirty dishes, spots on the stove, etc.”

Person B: “Ok, I will make a greater attempt to schedule in clean up time in my morning schedule. Maybe I’ll start packing my lunch the night before so that will be out of the way in the morning. But please don’t take it personally if I leave a dish or two behind.”

Person A: “Ok thanks. I won’t take it personally.”

Now the two parties can walk away from the conversation both feeling understood and resolving the real problem (Person A doesn’t feel respected by Person B). This method takes more time, but it saves countless encounters of screaming fights and unnecessary resentment.

I started using this technique in my own life a few years ago and it’s been very effective. Taking the time to communicate is very important when trying to resolve an issue. How can you solve a problem when the parties don’t understand where one another is coming from? This technique works in all areas of life: school, work, home and relationships. Our real issues are human issues and relatable (not feeling respected, feeling controlled or manipulated, etc.) Find out what the person is really saying, their feelings or concerns about the problem, then share your feelings and concerns about the problem. The act of listening empathetically really helps people open up and develop trust. A person who feels they can be open with you and who feels they can trust you is much more likely to cooperate on an issue than a person who feels they need to be defensive.

Try this the next time you find you’re dealing with a difficult person. You’ll be surprised at what you’ll discover!

In the great words of Nina Simone:

“Oh Lord, please don’t let me be misunderstood!”

Peace and Love,

Heather S. Rose