Seek first to understand, even in politics

By Steve Brawner
© 2015 by Steve Brawner Communications, Inc.

The fifth of Dr. Stephen Covey’s “Seven Habits of Highly Effective People” is “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.” Could that apply to politics, even today?

Covey taught that being understood is such a fundamental need that it is impossible to influence another person until that need has been met. He compared it to air: Remove it from a room, and nothing else would matter to the occupants.

Unfortunately, understanding is in short supply – in Washington, D.C., of course, but also outside the Beltway. Americans are divided ideologically, culturally and even geographically. We live in red and blue states and in safe Republican and Democratic congressional districts. Even our neighborhoods and churches are largely politically segregated. As a result, we’re far more likely to talk about people on the other side than with them. Now we’re entering another campaign season where billions of dollars will be spent to disunite us. Didn’t we just have an election?

Seeking first to understand, then to be understood is important politically for three reasons: because none of us knows everything (except radio talk show hosts and TV pundits, of course); because most of us have something to offer; and because the stakes are too high not to try.

The issues that we argue about usually involve competing worthwhile values that are difficult to balance – what government should do to help the needy, for example. Few Americans, including conservatives, want the government to do absolutely nothing to help those who truly need it, and most of us, including liberals, agree that too much government dependence is bad both for society and for dependent individuals.

What’s the exact dollar figure that perfectly balances those two competing values? No one can know. Thank goodness we don’t have to hit that sweet spot perfectly. Just getting reasonably close and governing responsibly is good enough.

In a country with 300 million people, you don’t reach that point by digging ideological trenches and shooting at each other across no man’s land. That kind of thinking just perpetuates an unsustainable status quo.

So how about seeking first to understand? What if we humbly acknowledged that, because we don’t know everything, the greater good is accomplished by combining our ideas with others’? It’s good that liberals warn of the dangers of capitalism degenerating into a survival of the fittest mentality, and it’s good that conservatives voice their concerns about government’s inefficiencies and its capacity to restrict freedom.

By valuing both points of views, and others across the political spectrum, we can get to Covey’s sixth habit: Synergize. That’s the idea that individuals can come together from different places and create something better than what either would have created on their own. It’s much better than compromise, where no one walks away particularly happy. Compromise is better than continued fighting, and in politics, it’s often the best possible result. But synergy happens, too. It’s how we got the Constitution. These days, a framework might be created that better addresses human needs without increasing dependency and adding to the $18 trillion national debt.

Covey also taught that each of us inhabits two circles: a circle of concern where we have no control, and a circle of influence where we do. Focus on your circle of influence, he said.

I can’t create synergy in Washington, but I can seek first to understand, then to be understood in my own life. I’ve decided to learn to avoid fruitless political debates, online or in person – the kind where two people are concerned only with scoring points and not considering the other’s ideas. Nothing productive happens when two people are emotionally invested in a political argument and motivated by pride and fear of losing face. I’ve wasted my time on several of these lately. In the end, all I accomplished was become frustrated and lose 45 minutes that could have been spent more productively.

Instead, I’ve determined to treat these discussions as opportunities for partnership rather than competition – to seek first to understand. I expect I’ll learn something actually listening to others. Maybe we’ll create a dialogue that enriches us both. Maybe I’ll influence the other person, and if I don’t, I certainly wouldn’t have done so by trying to debate them into submission.

And if I’m caught in a conversation with someone who’s not seeking to understand? Hopefully, I’ll be wise enough to get out of it, go somewhere else, and get some air.

8 thoughts on “Seek first to understand, even in politics

  1. We often fail to listen to what is being said because we have already made up our minds that we are right and it won’t matter what the other person says. Instead, we need to go down the road that you have described so eloquently; the world would be a better place and we might even be synergized!

  2. We who have spent a lifetime studying the Bible in the original languages sometimes get caught in conversations with fundamentalists who want to lecture us on the Bible’s teachings and are wide-eyed when we invoke understandings that differ from theirs. These people don’t realize that all readings of the Bible are INTERPRETATIONS and that all of us see only thru particular lenses. Some lenses are a whole lot better than others! But trying to explain all of this to them is worse than a waste of time. They always think they have the only truth that exists.

  3. Hi, Sandy. Thanks for reading and for writing. I kept my thoughts confined to politics and stayed away from religion. What can I say about that subject? I’m a Christian who tries to have faith but who struggles mightily in a lot of areas – both in belief and in personal development. I think it’s important that we remain open to new ideas and respectful of others. On the other hand, you’ve got to believe in something. I think you are a lot more secure in where you are than I am, and I admire that.

  4. I disagree wholeheartedly!

    (Just kidding… right on, as usual) Nice column, Steve. Oh, but for a bit more understanding in our political debates.

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