Seek first to understand, then to be understood.
This is the fifth habit in Stephen Covey’s productivity classic, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. In this chapter, Covey promotes empathetic listening, listening not just to reply but to understand where the other person is coming from. It makes sense in business and it works in personal relationships, but it’s hard as heck to do when you’re furious.
I have been a big proponent of empathetic listening since first discovering the power of it in marriage counseling a few years ago, and we’ve had plenty of opportunities to practice since leaving our marriage counselor over a year ago. We take turns listening and empathizing, validating and listening some more. We have the tools and we make a point of using them. Usually.
Last week, Jared and I were in an emotional stand off. We were both pretty ticked off at each other, firmly on opposite ends of important issues and angry about how the other was handling the disagreement. It was clear that we both needed to be heard. Unfortunately, neither of us was interested in doing the listening.
Who goes first when you both want to be understood?
The answer, of course, is that it doesn’t matter who goes first, but that each of us should at least consider volunteering. I know that I should seek first to understand, which means offering to play the role of listener before I get to have my say, but I really, really don’t like to. At all. I’m not good at putting my anger aside long enough to listen.
What if I’m wrong?
What if he’s wrong and I have to sit there and pretend like he’s not?
What if I do so much listening and empathizing that I don’t get a chance to be heard?
For days I went back and forth between the horror of having to really listen and the alternative: letting resentment settle back into my marriage. The choice should have been clear. It is clear. But knowing better and doing better are not the same. Pride is strong.
I was also struggling because listening makes us vulnerable, and that requires trust. The trust between Jared and I hasn’t been very high lately. We haven’t taken the time to build each other up or strengthen the bond between us. That makes it harder to trust that he’ll reciprocate if I lower my defenses and step into his shoes. As it turns out, it also makes it harder to believe someone will listen to you.
When I did finally go to Jared – which I confess only happened after I’d started writing this post and had to face what a complete ass I was being – he was hesitant.
“Is there anything you want to say to me? I’m ready to listen,” I said.
“I’m… um… I’m not sure right now.”
I sat next to him for about fifteen minutes while he made small talk and avoided looking at me. I didn’t push, but I wanted to. He continued to pretend like nothing was wrong, and I started to get angry again. Of course you won’t open up and communicate, I seethed inwardly. I was just about to walk away.
And then, quietly, he mentioned something that had upset him.
I nodded my head, kept my mouth shut, and did my best to understand. Thirty minutes later, he went to the gym and I went back to work. We hadn’t come to any great compromise between our two opinions, but we were closer to each other than we had been for days.
I share this story not because I am a shining example of partnership – it took a disgraceful amount of time for me to stuff my pride long enough to listen to my husband’s side – but to acknowledge that listening is not as easy as it sounds. It’s rare that only one person in a relationship is feeling hurt and unheard, and it’s hard as hell to listen when you need someone to listen to you.
But someone has to go first.
Once in a while, that has to be me.
Maybe sometimes it needs to be you, too.