Seek First to Understand, and then to be Understood
Whenever I am conducting a job interview, I always end the interview with the same question: what is the coolest thing you know?
And I tell interviewees that I am as interested in the thought process as to how they derive their answer as I am in the answer itself.
My own answer to that question is that there are places in the universe where the laws of physics, as we understand them, don’t work. Or so said Stephen Hawking in A Brief History of Time.
The concept of parts of the universe where the laws of physics as we know them don’t work is cool to me – because the implication is that anything could be possible.
But if I’m honest, this cool thing has relatively little application when it comes to our day-to-day lives on Earth.
Something else that I find cool is the strength and rigidity of people’s world views. By world views, we mean the fundamental building blocks of people’s core, underlying values, beliefs, and personal identity.
Understanding the rigidity of people’s world views has the potential for real-world application.
World views form the building blocks of people’s belief systems. Their underlying values. Their perspectives on what’s right or wrong.
When someone challenges your world view – or something that is core to your personal identity – you can get emotional. And when one group challenges another group’s world view – they might start a war.
Think about a time when someone said something to you that you found to be utterly ridiculous, rude, or completely contrary to your beliefs and values.
And think about your physical reaction.
We often experience the same ‘fight or flight’ response to what feels like verbal attack, as we would to a physical attack.
Our adrenaline kicks in. Our emotional reaction starts to overtake our logic. And then – with emotions winning over cognitions, heated arguments often ensue.
Dr. Franco Vaccarino is the President of the University of Guelph, and a neuroscientist.
He suggests a different approach for all of us to take.
When you have that moment of “I cannot fathom how this person believes this…”, force yourself to physically relax, smile, and say to the other person: “That’s fascinating. Tell me more about your thinking!”
Rather than pushing back and arguing, he suggests that we do the opposite: ask for more. And seek to genuinely understand the difference in world view that you have with the other person.
The objective is to come to a clear and logical understanding of where the other person’s perspectives and beliefs come from.
Because everyone has a story. And often times when people have very different world views from your own, there are very good reasons. Those reasons are often a function of their own successes and failures, sources of stability and insecurities, past experiences, and upbringing.
When I worked at Procter & Gamble, we had an expression: ‘Seek first to understand, and then to be understood.’ Which basically means being able to play back another person’s point of view and perspective to them so that they agree that you got it – and then (and only then) saying: “Have you thought about it this way?”
So why is all this so cool? Because people are often rigid in their world views without even knowing it. World views are so central to any given human being, that world views become invisible.
Their fundamental paradigms are so cemented into their psyche, that when those core values and beliefs feel under attack in some way, they struggle to have a rational conversation.
This leads us to one reason why change is so hard in so many organizations today.
Because often times when someone comes along wanting to do things differently, the existing team perceives not only an attack on the old systems and processes and ways of doing things, they perceive an attack on them.
The things that they’ve invested time and effort developing.
They perceive that their world view is under attack.
Remember that when you are advocating for doing things differently. And the next time you feel yourself getting emotionally riled up by someone – remember that line: ‘That’s fascinating. Tell me more about your thinking!’
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