Seek First to Understand

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When we find ourselves in conflicts with others – our kids, our students, our parents, our partners – we often find ourselves experiencing strong emotions.

We may feel shocked at their behavior.  We may feel extremely frustrated with how wrong / inappropriate / unjust they seem.  We may feel uncomfortably anxious – unsure of ourselves and uncertain about what’s going to happen next.

What to do with those feelings?  How do we respond to our children (or others) when we disagree so strongly with what they’re saying or doing?

“Seek first to understand, then to be understood.”

I find this maxim from Stephen Covey so helpful.  Let’s consider what happens when we don’t head the wisdom of this saying, and what’s possible when we do.

Far too often, we listen with the intent to reply, rather than to understand. Especially in the heat of an argument, we’re often just waiting for the other person to pause (to just shut up!), so we can impart our wisdom. So we can set the record or the situation straight.  So we can get the other person to see it our way.  So they’ll conform to our way of thinking.  So they’ll comply with our expectations.

This approach of trying to coerce others to see it our way, to do it our way, contributes to suffering.  Theirs and ours. It contributes to the coercive cycle of attack and defend, counter-attack and counter-defend.  Towards what end?  More suffering.

We get escalating “fight or flight” behaviors that don’t get us anywhere.  We get more strong-arm tactics, more bullying, more resentment, more avoidance.  Rarely does this approach lead toward more constructive resolutions to our conflicts.

This is true for kids who are acting out – whether impulsively, aggressively, or otherwise “inappropriately.”  This is also true for loved ones and colleagues and students and supervisors and presidents!

The more we feel we’re in a battle that has to be “won”, the more we tighten up. Our muscles literally contract and tighten.  Our visual perceptual field and our thinking patterns literally narrow.  We get more “tunnel vision” and “knee-jerk” reactions.

We’re less able to consider broader, differing viewpoints.  We’re less able to appreciate one another’s strengths and needs.  We lose compassion and trust.  We gain heartache and headaches, toxic stress and exhaustion.  We perpetuate a cycle of self-and-other harm.

The irony is that while we fight desperately for more control, we increasingly add to the situation getting out-of-control.

On the other hand, when we can stop and reflect (PAUSE and BREATHE) before replying, good things can happen.

When your child is acting-out – when they’re blowing-up, melting-down, or tuning-out – what do you do?  Likely some manner of “Stop it!” “Knock it off!”  “Settle down!”  “Listen up!”

Sound familiar?

What if…?

What if, instead, we took the time and energy to really understand where that child was coming from?  What if we paused to consider, just for a moment, what is driving that behavior?  What is the underlying feeling or need that child is trying to express?

They may be expressing it in an entirely inappropriate or unacceptable way right now, and we’ll address that in just a moment.  But first, what if we really tried to understand what’s going on with this kiddo?  Why are they acting this way right now?

What if we could ask that question, not with irritation or judgment or harshness, but with kindness and curiosity?  What if we paused long enough to recognize this other person is suffering?  They too, want to be happy and peaceful.  They too want to feel seen and heard, to be recognized and to belong.

Too often when a parent or teacher says “This kid is just doing it for attention” or “This kid is doing it to try to gain control or get their way” it’s said with some type of negative tone.

Too often we make these attributions about a child (or any other person) without a compassionate heart.  Without the perspective that of course they want control and attention and validation – that’s exactly what we want too!  That’s something everyone wants!

What if we reminded ourselves of the humanity of this other person, this child? What if we paused to really understand their struggle in this moment?

What if we could join with them – not work against them – to find a reasonable solution for their struggle and yours? What if we responded with empathy to their feelings, and still held them accountable for their behaviors?

What if we could acknowledge, with empathic understanding, their needs, and then indicate how we could try to work towards finding a way to address those needs?  – All while still valuing and respecting our own needs (ethics, rules)?

Which approach do you think is more likely to de-escalate the situation?  Which approach is more likely to help the child (any person) begin to calm and cooperate?

Seek first to understand, then to be understood.

Seeking first to understand, and only then to be understood, is an ethical and effective way to interact with others.

It’s a helpful way of being with our children.  It’s a useful foundation for co-regulating our emotions and collaboratively solving our problems.

It embodies compassion and care.  It helps set clear limits and boundaries that are more likely to be understood and adhered to.  It promotes healthier and more sustainable relationships.

I’m thinking we could all use a little bit more of that these days.