Seek First to Understand

The Foundation of Personal and Professional Success

Not long ago, I caved and read the classic of the personal development genre The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. I admit, it’s a really good book — it lives up to the hype. You can read the 7 habits for yourself here, but I want to focus on one in particular because it has helped me immensely in both my personal and professional life:

Seek first to understand, then to be understood.

To me, this habit is the most important of the 7, without question.

The essence of this habit is a temperament that favors curiosity, open-mindedness, empathy, and patience — all rolled into one. In order to really seek to understand, you cannot have already judged a person or situation. You need to develop a desire to understand — meaning a desire to see things from others’ point of view, to see their reasons, and feel what they feel.

The great thing about this habit is that it not only makes you a better friend, co-worker, and partner to those around you, it provides tremendous benefits to you as well. Here are but a few that I have found, as I try to employ the strategy of seeking first to understand:

1. You learn better

Being a lifelong learner is important. If you’re reading this, you have probably read a few of the thousand pieces on the internet that talk about just how important it is to be continuously learning. Well, there is little that you can do to more effectively cultivate the mindset of a lifelong learner than to seek to understand.

When you seek to understand, you admit that you don’t currently understand. Which means you admit that you are not in possession of all the relevant information. Which means you’re effectively ready to learn it.Boom! Life Learning!

2. You prevent yourself from saying things you’ll regret

Few things can get you into more trouble than being too quick to talk. You can end up committing to things that you shouldn’t, saying things you don’t even mean, and generally killing your credibility. In many cases, we speak first and speak often because we’re looking for people to understand us.

If we seek to understand others first, we’re more likely to listen before we speak. When we do that, we can avoid saying things that on reflection we shouldn’t have. We also tend to ask more questions, rather than making statements, which keeps us from over-committing and contradicting ourselves.

3. Your emotional intelligence skyrockets

Emotional intelligence is all the rage these days. Everyone from leaders to up-and-comers are being told just how important it is to be able to read people’s emotions (as well as their own) and react to them appropriately. Doing that effectively will require a disposition to desire to understand how others feel. You will have to seek to understand the feelings of others, just as much as you seek to understand your own.

4. Your ability to influence improves dramatically

When you seek to understand others, and begin to act accordingly, two things will likely happen.

First, you’ll gain a rapport with them. They will be more likely to talk to you about various things, and you will be more likely to be privy to information that can be helpful to you. When your’e trying to achieve ambitious goals, build a team, and get buy-in, rapport is everything.

Second, your words will tend to hold more weight with people. For those that you have made a point to understand better, when you tell them something, it will tend to carry more weight. After all, you’ve proven that you care about understanding their point of view, so it becomes easier for them to give you the benefit of the doubt.