Friday, December 10, 2021

Seek to understand then be understood

“If I were to summarize in one sentence the single most important principle I have learned in the field of interpersonal relations, it would be this: Seek first to understand, then to be understood.” This is one of the fundamental teachings of Stephen Covey. It is also the fifth habit in his famous book Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. If you’re like most people, you probably seek first to be understood; you want to get your point across. And in doing so, you may ignore the other person completely, pretend that you’re listening, selectively hear only certain parts of the conversation or attentively focus on only the words being said, but miss the meaning entirely. So why does this happen? Because most people listen with the intent to reply, not to understand. You listen to yourself as you prepare in your mind what you are going to say, the questions you are going to ask, etc. You filter everything you hear through your life experiences, your frame of reference. You check what you hear against your autobiography and see how it measures up. And consequently, you decide prematurely what the other person means before he/she finishes communicating. Covey teaches us the supremely important value of truly trying to understand an opposing person’s position before attempting to convince someone else of your own opinion. I have long believed the Seven Habits of Covey are aligned with the wisdom found in the Torah. For example, in the Megilas Esther, when Esther sees Mordechai dressed in sackcloth, it was shocking and painful to view a loved one in such a compromising way. The message Esther sent to Mordechai was לָדַעַת מַה־זֶּה וְעַל־מַה־זֶּה This is translated as to know what this was and this was. I have wondered why the repetitive expression was necessary for Esther to get her point across! I believe she was applying the concept of seeking to understand before being understood. When you see something unusual and bizarre before rushing to judgment, it may be worthwhile to legitimately explore the reason for this viewpoint or practice. Unfortunately, when this does not occur, the consequences can be nothing short of catastrophic. We don't have to go further than this week's Parsha to witness the relationship of Yosef and his brothers and the cost of not seeking to understand the others first. Indeed, so many people are estranged from parents, spouses, siblings, and other family members. It doesn’t have to be this way. It might be worth it to seek to understand before being understood. Have a Peaceful Shabbos, Rabbi Yaakov Fisch

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