Seek First to Understand

NOTE: If you prefer listening to reading, check out the Reconnection Club Podcast Episode #41, Seek First to Understand.

One of the most powerful maxims in human relations theory is this pithy advice from Stephen R. Covey:

“Seek first to understand, then to be understood.”

Covey himself called it “the single most important principle” in relationships. It’s Habit 5 from The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.

Seeking first to understand is a simple concept, but very hard to practice.

It means that in every interaction with others, we listen intently to their point of view. We try to understand their perspective. We imagine what the world looks like to them.

Most of us, myself included, don’t listen like this under normal circumstances. We listen with a filter on — a filter called “me.”

While others are talking, we’re thinking, “What’s my view of this subject? What are my memories, beliefs, or values around this? What can I contribute to this conversation based on my own experience?”

Unfortunately, this process usually takes up too much mental energy for us to be able to absorb the speaker’s perspective.

Add to this our human tendency to defend against perceived attacks, and there’s a recipe for a bad outcome in any disagreement with your child.

When an adult child makes accusations, whether scathing or mild or somewhere in between, most parents can’t help but succumb to the twin temptations of putting those accusations through the “me” filter (e.g., ‘That’s not how I remember it’) and instantly going into a defensive posture.

Defensiveness is a separate issue. But the “me” filter can be gradually controlled by keeping these words in mind: “Seek first to understand.”

Putting the other person’s perspective first is so unnatural and difficult that it takes a strong will and considerable practice to have any hope of executing this highly effective strategy for connection.

Practice makes… better

Since one of the most common complaints of estranged adult children is that their parents are “clueless,” seeking to understand is a skill worth developing. In many cases, it could pay large dividends.

If you’re not currently in contact with your child, you can still benefit from starting a practice of seeking to understand others when they talk. That way, the skill will be in place when your child is back in the picture.

Trust me, you don’t want to wait till then. Like any other complex skill, it will take consistent practice to become good at it.

The people you “seek first to understand” can be anyone. It’s probably easier to practice with folks outside your family, especially at first.

Focus on listening, then say, “Let me see if I understand you… ” Then put in your own words what you heard the speaker say.

You can even take guesses as to how they feel about what they’re saying, or ask them about their feelings if it’s not clear.

Don’t worry if you don’t completely understand someone’s point of view right away. Sincerely trying to understand someone is a valuable gift.

None of us can do this perfectly in our most important relationships. Fortunately, perfection is not the goal. Any efforts you make in this direction will be better than staying in the hypnotized state of the “me” filter.

Most of us can grow from the effort of understanding others before we seek to be understood. For parents of estranged adult children, this habit could become one of the most useful tools in your toolkit.

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