by Kathie England

Seek First to Understand

Written by AJ Pfander

As I anxiously anticipate the next madness from #45, I am reminded of the March post written by Judy Caforio. Judy presented an expanded perspective of taking small political steps to make profound change to include “finding a way to make the world a kinder place at a time when many of us aren’t feeling particularly kind.”

I recently had an experience where taking a small risk resulted in a small step.

My husband and I invited our neighbors to dinner. Dick and Judy are the kind of neighbors we all hope to have— the same values for curb appeal and “over the fence” interaction, and loads of fun. They regularly invite us to share birthdays, graduations, and holidays with their family and friends and over the years we have become extended family members. There is one difference, though. They are Republicans! Dick supported and voted for our current president. We don’t speak about politics very often, primarily because neither my husband nor I are keen on debates, and fortunately, the difference doesn’t impact our friendship.

I was genuinely curious to know what Dick thought of the president now and how he was leading the country. So I asked. Dick’s response indicated he was happy with a couple of things (a Supreme Court appointment was one), but not so much with the how – communication style and behavior. We chatted briefly and then moved on to other topics. No harm, no foul.

The next day I received this email: “Good morning. Recall our Trump conversation on Saturday. The dinner last night is an example of exactly what needs to be done. A reaching across party lines and an acceptance of that gesture to achieve a compromise. One small step forward…hopefully followed by many others. Not a victory or a loss for either faction, but certainly a step forward for us.”

I immediately thought of a line from the Prayer of St. Francis and a tenant of Stephen Covey’s 7 Habits: Seek first to understand.

According to Covey, many people don’t listen to understand. As they listen they are preparing their response for when it’s their turn to speak, potentially missing the meaning by selectively hearing and filtering everything through their own experiences. Covey teaches us to ask questions and listen empathetically without judgment, to get inside another person’s frame of reference so we can see the world as they see it. If we take the time and have the true desire to understand the other person, they are more likely to feel safe enough to open up about their thoughts and feelings. Being understood, then, is rooted in a deep understanding of the other person. Seek first to understand.

On the September 24 episode of 60 Minutes Oprah Winfrey moderated a conversation among a group of voters from Michigan about the current political climate. The emotion, passion and frustration of the opposing views were palpable. As the conversation ended, a comment was made by a participant that this event presented a great opportunity to listen to each other. Seek first to understand.
Imagine if…

  • One person asked the person wearing the t-shirt, Not My President, “Why do you think that?”, and listened without response?
  • One person at a protest rally asked the person facing them, “What brought you here?”, and expressed empathy at the response?
  • One police officer checked his or her judgment before pulling over a person with a “risky” appearance?
  • One person advocated including listening skills in school curriculums?
  • and so on…

So, I will continue to have “learning” conversations, asking questions to learn as much as possible about who that person is and why they might be saying or doing the things I don’t agree with. I will also do my best to assume the best in others. Suspending judgment is tough, but I’ve recently read that empathy is hardwired into our species. That’s hopeful.

And I may send the Peace Prayer to the President. Who knows, miracles can happen!

Thank you to my dear friend AJ Pfander for October’s perspective! AJ is a life-long learner and former colleague as a Certified Professional Organizer.