Seek First to Understand

The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Dr. Stephen Covey is one of my very favorite books. Part of Dr. Covey's message (addressed in Habit 5: Seek First to Understand, Then to be Understood) is that people form opinions based on their own experiences. Unless they work hard to understand the other person's perspective, two people can see the same thing and form completely different viewpoints because they are understanding "autobiographically."

"If you're like most people, you probably seek first to be understood; you want to get your point across. And in doing so, you may ignore the other person completely, pretend that you're listening, selectively hear only certain parts of the conversation or attentively focus on only the words being said, but miss the meaning entirely. So why does this happen? Because most people listen with the intent to reply, not to understand. You listen to yourself as you prepare in your mind what you are going to say, the questions you are going to ask, etc. You filter everything you hear through your life experiences, your frame of reference. You check what you hear against your autobiography and see how it measures up. And consequently, you decide prematurely what the other person means before he/she finishes communicating."

According to Dr. Covey, learning to communicate effectively is the most important life skill. In my experience, this skill is critical to good decision-making, whether you're a CEO, investor, mentor, partner, or an employee. At AboutOne, we run a daily stand-up meeting and I send a weekly newsletter in which I update our team on everything I think would be of interest to them, but I'm always looking for ways to communicate more clearly.

As much as I value Dr. Covey's 7 Habits, my recent experience on the receiving end of a startling series of miscommunications taught me that there is an important corollary to Habit 5, namely: "There's another side to the story."

Years ago I worked at a large software company and one night I came home and vented to my husband about issues I had with my new boss. I felt that my new boss was a bad manager, was making bad decisions, and was sending the team in the wrong direction. My husband surprised me when he asked if I'd spent time with my boss to understand all the facts. He asked me if I'd discussed my concerns with my boss, or had made any attempt at all to understand the reasons behind the decisions I was so concerned about. He asked me if I'd listened to and heard my boss. It is in my husband's Austrian nature to be direct, but his questions were spot on and exactly what I needed to hear.

Although convinced I already knew all the facts, I decided to follow my husband's advice. I invited my boss for coffee and openly and honestly asked why he'd made his recent decisions. As we drank our coffee, it became clear that I really only had half the story. Once I heard the full 360 degree view of why my boss made the decisions he did and their actual outcomes and impact on our team, I realized my husband was right. I'd made assumptions about my boss' decisions... and you know what they say about assuming!

The lesson I learned from that experience is still something I pull from today. To be a good CEO, manager, advisor, investor, or even a good parent, you need to listen so that you can understand. It's important to get the facts from everyone involved, and (this sounds obvious, but you'd be amazed how many people fail to do this) never make big decisions based on one half of a story -- no matter who is telling it.

Have you made a decision recently without being open and honest with the person you're judging? Have you asked their opinion and been open to listening... really listening to hear and understand, not just listening to respond or talk?