Seek first to understand

Or: why is nobody listening to me!?

Does this sound familiar?

  • “They just do whatever they want.”
  • “They don’t listen to our suggestions, whatever we try.”
  • “Whatever they say goes.”
  • “They talk as we’re not even here.”
  • “They micro manage us all the time, we get to make no decisions.”

If this does sound familiar to you, at best this will result in anger and frustration. If it persists, in many cases it will result in something much worse: compliance. In compliance-mode, there is no more will to attempt anything anymore, just “accepting the things we cannot change.” And effectively it’s end of story.

That’s bad, and — in my experience — completely avoidable.

Of course, I don’t know the “them” in your organization or life, but I have worked in contexts with a “them” and have found that a different attitude and approach resolved/avoided this problem altogether.

The idea is simple, and it is best formulated as the fifth of the “7 habits of highly effective people” (although I implicitly already applied this before I knew it was one of “the habits”). Here it is:

Seek first to understand, then to be understood.

Wikipedia summarizes this habit as follows:

Use empathic listening to genuinely understand a person, which compels them to reciprocate the listening and take an open mind to being influenced by you. This creates an atmosphere of caring, and positive problem solving.

It’s that simple. Yet few people do it.

Here is most people’s approach to convincing other people: “here is what I think we should do and why.” Notably missing is a visible attempt in verifying you fully understand and appreciate the real problem (and person with the problem).

This approach probably works fine if there’s trust already, if you have a track record of getting things right, or because you’re the boss and everybody just does what you say anyway. However, if you do not have a track record, or you’re not the boss, it’s not so easy to convince people of your point of view without showing them that you understand them first.

Many people have the assumption that asking questions shows weakness, but it does not. It’s just the opposite.

In a previous job I was regularly involved in the sales part of the business. Yes, me, in sales, it’s hilarious, I know. Beyond my natural charm, I only had one sales tool at my disposal: my ability to ask the right questions. Questions that showed I was trying to understand — and eventually understood — their business and needs. When the potential customer felt understood, they were open to anything.

People are terrible at saying what they mean. That’s why you have to ask questions. You have to listen to what people mean, not what they say. That’s not always easy. The only way I know to do so, is to ask away.

This approach has yet to fail on me. It’s possible that I’m just lucky. It’s possible (and in fact very likely) that I’m just special (as my mother has always claimed). It’s also possible I’m completely delusional, but hey, what can I do.

Ask.