My sweet neighbor gave us this granola-ish, little plaque she got while traveling abroad. I totally love it, except for the dog, which reminds me of one we owned briefly during my childhood. He made a career out of defecating on every carpet throughout the house so fairly quickly wound up back at the farm from which he came. (Dog lovers/whisperers/advocates, please refrain from condemnation. I’m sure Simba led a far more satisfactory life on the farm than he would have in our fenceless, suburban home.)
But aside from the dog, I do love this prayer because it addresses one of the main causes – if not THE main cause – of division and pain within relationships: “grant that I may not so much seek … to be understood as to understand.”
If I could read only one book for the rest of my life, it would be Stephen Covey’s The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. Covey was like a human waterfall of wisdom and fittingly, one of those habits is, “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.”
See, we all have this deep-seated desire to be understood. It’s not a bad thing; it just needs to be kept in check, like so many of our innate human desires. “Next to physical survival, the greatest need of a human being is psychological survival – to be understood, to be affirmed, to be validated, to be appreciated.” Maybe that’s why therapy is such a thriving field. (I’m not bashing therapists. I have one and she’s sensational.)
But because of this inborn yearning we have to be understood, it doesn’t come naturally to attempt to sincerely understand others. It might sound like a simple thing to do but it’s actually surprisingly difficult.
“We typically seek first to be understood. Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply. They’re either speaking or preparing to speak.” Oh, truth. How often, during conversations, do I lose track of what someone is saying because I’m caught up preparing to gush about my experience or douse them with my advice?
Even in arguments with my spouse, I’m so desperate for him to understand where I’m coming from or why I’m pissed off that it rarely occurs to me to seek a deeper understanding of his motives and intentions. But when I do, nine times out of ten I end up falling even more in love with the guy.
Our minds have been so thoroughly saturated in egocentrism that setting ourselves aside for the sake of more intimately knowing another person feels foreign. In truth, though, it can open oh so many beautiful, bountiful doors in relationships.
What’s really sad is a lot of us even do it with our kids. We put very little effort toward understanding them and their delightfully unique personalities but gargantuan efforts toward forcing them to understand and conform to us and our expectations.
I have a sister-in-law who never ceases to impress me with her wealth of knowledge about (well, everything) but specifically about children and their growth and development. When one of her kids is acting peculiarly or unfavorably, she doesn’t immediately crack the whip and turn to discipline, demanding obedience. She seeks to understand. She researches to figure out what’s going on with them at this particular stage of growth and how she can most lovingly and effectively respond and guide them through it. Unfortunately, many parents, including me, seldom do this.
So much of this failure to understand one another has led to painful and horrific division in people’s lives. Many divorces, feuds, grudges and the like exist because our first instinct is to make others understand us while we have zero interest in truly understanding them, their motives and perspectives.
But, like the plaque says, “it is in giving that we receive,” so when we give of our time and attention, we reap remarkable rewards. Give it a try. I’m telling you… people continuously surprise me with how outstanding and fascinating they are when I manage to set myself aside and dig deep to understand them. They fill me with knowledge, ideas, insights, empathy, and so much more.
Just like Matthew Kelly wrote in Perfectly Yourself: “What people do and what people say is interesting. But why people do and say the things they do, is absolutely fascinating.”
Here’s a super simple case in point: there’s a middle aged-couple that frequently sits in the cry room at our church. The room is limited on space and intended for parents and their noisy offspring so for awhile, I found it aggravating that this couple who clearly had no little ones with them, would sit in there taking up space. It was easy to assume they were too lazy to go all the way into the church or wanted to be able to chat with each other so they made themselves comfortable in the back room.
One Sunday, we struck up a conversation with them and found out that the man is hard of hearing and since the speakers in the cry room are of greater quality than those in the church, he’s better able to follow along in there.
My life is chock-full of instances like this in which I ignorantly make assumptions – usually negative ones – about people and their actions. In reality, though, I have no idea why they do what they do and if I did, I’d probably find them pretty interesting, or at least agree that yes, the speakers could use some improvements.
Of course, I have to wrap up with a Covey quote: “When we really, deeply understand each other, we open the door to creative solutions … Our differences are no longer stumbling blocks to communication and progress. Instead, they become the stepping stones to synergy.”