Seek first to understand, then to be understood

Last night, Twitter raised something interesting that I’d like to pick up and continue this morning. How do you raise a taboo topic without insulting anyone, being accused of using offensive language or not being politically correct enough? Crikey, there’s a lot in that. Genuine discussion is what the essence of this is about, and I think is something we can get easily swayed on.

I remember a saying that goes “seek first to understand, then to be understood”. And I think that’s what the important thing is to do. Too often so do we see people happy to just be understood, without taking the time to understand the situation first.

The consequences of the latter approach is clear, and we see it everyday. We get annoyed because we have half a story, we make assumptions about the rest, we believe we’re right, and then we form an opinion and a belief. Sometimes things get said. Sometimes things fester. Sometimes people are rude. Sometimes you just don’t talk to others.

For me, now, I often start at a point of empathy. If I don’t understand and take the time to appreciate what you’re saying, how can I form an opinion on it? I learned some hard rules about assumptions I carried with me until I started work proper. And my biggest learning was that I had very little basis on which my assumptions were based.

But, I recognise that not everyone wants to do this, has the time to, or is able to. Which is where I think education helps. From those that know, and from those that understand something well enough that they can inform others objectively.

Topics like obesity, immigration, politics, sexual health, rape, and myriad others, are all very interesting and deserve a lot of attention. There are those who do this genuinely, and they should be applauded. However, I think we’re also guilty of relying on media sources to give us our opinions. That’s nothing new, but as a people we’re quite lazy, and are happy for someone else to do the digging while we get on with our busy lives.

So, this is just a collection of thoughts really, nothing quite coherent, except this. If you come across a topic that you are ignorant about, take the time to understand it as fully as you can. Only then can you help yourself, and help others.


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Sukh Pabial

I'm an occupational psychologist by profession and am passionate about all things learning and development, creating holistic learning solutions and using positive psychology in the workforce.

5 thoughts on “Seek first to understand, then to be understood”

  1. Interesting points Sukh and as you know I was involved in that conversation last night. I’d like to try and separate out two things here though, the first is opinion and the second is the impact of that opinion.

    The problem with “taboo” subjects is that people often shy away from the impact of the opinion. They still hold it, but fear that expressing it may lead to some sort of backlash or unfavourable reaction. We see this a lot in the workplace where a sort of group think can emerge and anyone challenging that can receive short shrift.

    And the taboo subjects also tend to be surrounded by emotion too. We know the facts about obesity for example. On a factual basis it is an open and shut case, the harder part is the emotional dynamic.

    Personally, I think there are times when we need to speak out and other times when we need to keep our counsel. And that can only be a decision for the individual involved.

  2. Really like you take on this Sukh, I agree that is it important to educate and to question your own assumptions before saying something. This applies at work and play.

    There is also a point to be made about not avoiding the difficult topics, but its how we approach them that counts.

  3. Love it Sukh! It’s touching so many levels that are relevant to how we engage with each other….

    Firstly competence & ignorance. Opinion is just that but for me the crux of your observation is to be aware of what you do know and what you don’t know. How informed or ignorant are you? How competent are you to opine on a subject?

    The second thing you’re making me think about is the assumptions we make. The brain is very good at making assumptions and filling in the blanks. It’s very efficient and it generally serves us well, but not always. Anyone wanting to test this out in a fun way can try this :

    So in our opinions, not only do we need to be aware of our competence & ignorance but also what assumptions have we knowingly or unknowingly made. Just by thinking/reflecting on this or appreciating others points of view can help us uncover these – this is your point on empathy I believe.

    Finally, Taboo subjects. What makes them taboo is that they are forbidden or disapproved of either by ourselves or those around us (incl. society at large). They are a construct of social norms & our own perceptions. Taboo subjects need to be challenged but it’s only worth doing knowing your ignorance, competence & assumptions. Then you need the right time, right approach and courage.

    (Actually on the subject of Courage I think it’s worth readers of this post also looking at @robjones_tring blog

    Keep your counsel if you want to or if the conditions are not ready. However, if we all kept our counsel or didn’t challenge taboos it would be a lonely planet.

  4. Hi Sukh

    Great topic and the saying is one of Stephen Covey’s habits. I think taboo topics are often seen as such as there is a diversity of opinion which makes it impossible to find common ground as there are no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ answers.

    People are complex beings and I agree with the point Neil makes about these topics being surrounded by emotion, and emotions at work can leave people feeling uncomfortable. However, if we never discuss or air difficult subjects in my opinion they go underground and fester. Empathetic listening and being honest and authentic I believe go a long away even if someone holds a different opinion from your own.

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