Guideline # 4 For a Healthy Relationship

Written by on May 21, 2012 in On Relationships

Guideline # 4:  Seek first to understand, then to be understood.

I borrowed this from Stephen Covey‘s book The Seven Habits of Highly Successful People. It is habit number 5. This has been absolutely fundamental in all of my relationships including that of my kids, friends, strangers, relatives, parents as well as my husband. It is a practice though and does not come easily without practice. Our survival instincts tell us to take care of ourselves first so we are inclined to take care of our emotional needs first too. But this usually backfires. Our emotional needs are more complex and are partially met by our interaction with others.

Here is an analogy.

Imagine two starving people. One bowl of food. It is agreed that each person will receive half of the contents in the bowl. So, who gets to eat first? Both people will feel a strong impulse to feed themselves first, if only to make sure that the other person doesn’t eat more than their fair share. Both parties feel the same way. They may try to negotiate by eating simultaneously, one person may trick the other into allowing  them to eat first. Manipulation and control of the situation creates constant suspicion and threat. Fighting often breaks out at this point. The food is spilled, there is a mad scramble for what is left and both parties start blaming each other for the disaster.

With this guideline, seek first to understand and then to be understood you are making the decision to give the bowl to the other person first. This is important because it establishes respect and trust is given that the other person will not eat more than their agreed portion. This is quite difficult to do at first but after a bit of practice it becomes apparent that it works extremely well. If you allow me to eat first I am quite conscious of this fact and that it is difficult for you to do. I only know this because it would also be difficult for me. I am aware that you are extending trust to me. I am grateful to be allowed to eat first but I am also sensitive to your needs and am careful not to eat more than my share. I look forward to giving the bowl back to you so that you may eat.

So how does this work in a relationship? Let’s say you don’t get along with a certain person. Maybe you are close to this person, maybe not, either way it doesn’t matter. Whenever you talk to this person you end up arguing or feeling misunderstood. Stop trying to explain yourself. Listen to the other person with the intent to really understand them. Get into their thinking, their motivations and perhaps even their life experience that led them to feel and think the way that they do.

In order to do this you have to momentarily suspend YOUR needs to be listened to and understood. Detach yourself from your own agenda. I think of myself as a scientist trying to understand some obscure element or plant that no one has ever seen before. I gather information from the person in an effort to make sense and understand their inner workings. I can tell when I let go of my agenda because suddenly the other person becomes interesting to me. I am curious. I feel an openness that is also felt by the other person. The other person begins to relax. Anger, if there is any, dissipates. Respect and trust enter to guide the interaction. These are indicators that you are succeeding.

Once the other person feels understood they are very open to your feelings and reactions even if those reactions are negative. They will want to hear how you are feeling. They will instinctively try to understand you.

You may say, that would never happen with (_______). It doesn’t matter how much I listen, he/she will never back down and try to understand me. They are too selfish and close minded to do it. I have to fight to be heard or be silent and let them win. 

My response is this: If you really want to be right instead of improving your relationship don’t bother with this guideline. But if you are really sincere about changing your relationship then you will never know for sure until you try.

Caveat: As long as you cling to your own agenda, even silently, you will fail. As long as you need to be understood more than you are willing to understand others it will not work. As hard as it is, you must let go of your need to be understood. Others will naturally seek to understand you if you first give them understanding.

Seek first to understand then to be understood is another and better way of stating the Golden Rule, do unto others as you would have others do unto you. Habit number 5 as the Golden Rule would sound something like this: Do unto others as others would have you do unto them. In order to do that you must understand the other persons needs. Guideline # 4 is seek first to understand then to be understood. This one guideline alone will transform your relationships.

My question to you: Why do you think feeling understood is so important?

Stephen Covey’s Seven Habits of Highly Effective People

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  1. Guideline # 5 for a Healthy Relationship | Susanna Barlow | July 9, 2012
  1. Lisa says:

    Feeling understood is important because it connects us to others. When you understand me, I feel validated as a person who matters. I’ve seen changes in some of my own relationships as I have applied this principle. Someone I have felt distant from suddenly becomes more open and responsive when I drop “My Need” to be understood.

  2. Susanna says:

    Thanks for the comment Lisa! It is funny that trying to get our needs met actually prevents us from having them be met!