These are challenging times. We have been quarantined away from our loved ones for two or more months, have had nowhere to go but perhaps the grocery stores, and many are suffering severe economic hardship. While some people have shown the best of themselves, others have lost whatever patience they had. One only has to visit briefly on social media to see and feel the depths of anger some are carrying. There has never been a time that we have been more in need of grace and understanding.
One of our greatest thinkers of all time was Dr. Stephen Covey. Although Dr. Covey’s earthly life ended years ago, his wisdom lives on in his teachings. Perhaps rereading his seminal book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, can help us in these times. While we still have lots of time to read if we are following the advice of the experts and social distancing most of the time, some people are not readers, and even if they are, they want to read something more “light and airy” than Dr. Covey. Given that, please indulge me for a moment as I mention the Habit with the most meaning for us as we continue to deal with this international crisis.
All of the Seven Habits are powerful, and if followed, can help us be a better version of ourselves than we sometimes are in our natural state. But even without COVID-19, Dr. Covey said the 5th Habit, “Seek First to Understand, Then To Be Understood,” is the most important of all of the habits. This is the habit that will help us the most in relationships.
“Seek First to Understand, Then To be Understood” requires that we listen more than we talk and that we ask more and better questions. The questions we ask are to understand the thinking of others, not to give us ammunition we can use against them. It involves the use of the words, “What” and “How,” and avoiding the word, “Why.” “Why” is a word that can cause the other person to think they need to justify what they are saying, to defend their “position.” The skillful use of “What” and “How” can give us the same information that the answer to “Why” could give us, yet is more often heard as seeking information, not justification. Of course, tone of voice is important, or regardless of the words used, the other person may feel and therefore act defensive.
An example will illustrate this. One could respond to a comment about the importance of using a mask in public with, “Why do you feel that way?” Another choice is, “What has been your experience with using or not using a mask in public?” Or, “How have you seen the use of a mask in public to be important?” Is there one of these three choices that you think could more likely precipitate a defensive response? Again, tone of voice is important.
When we communicate with others from a place of seeking understanding more than proving our point or position on an issue, we may find that we do not need to try to prove our point at all. Now, would that improve our conversations and relationships? Could we have fewer arguments and more meaningful conversations? I would love to hear your thoughts about this.