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Commentary - Seven Habits of Highly Effective People: Seek First to Understand, then to be Understood

Buckley Air Force Base, Colo. -- Editor's Note: This is the fifth story in a seven-part series on the Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. A class on these habits is offered periodically by the Airman and Family Readiness Center.

I have never been a "one-upper," but I am guilty of prescribing solutions in situations before I diagnosed the symptoms. This behavior is addressed in the fifth habit of the series, Seven Habits of Highly Effective People; a seminar offered at the Airman and Family Readiness Center that truly affects my thoughts and decisions every day.

To communicate effectively, we must bridge the gap between what you see and what I see; we have to reach a mutual understanding. Mutual understanding is the principle outlining habit five; seek first to understand, then to be understood.

I was out shopping the other day and I overheard a conversation between a customer and a sales lady that reminded me of habit five and I wished I could have told them about it. The customer had been searching for a few minutes for a certain type of stencil, but was unable to find it. For whatever reason, she seemed frantic as she asked the sales lady at the desk for help. The sales lady asked her to hold on for just a minute, but didn't explain why. The customer got angry and retorted "Forget about it, I'll just do it myself!"
In the few seconds it took the customer to get frustrated and walk away without a solution, she may have noticed that the sales woman was already on the phone with a customer, and put it down when she walked up. The customer stormed off muttering to herself and the sales woman got off the phone and scurried after her, offering help.

I snapped out of audience mode and returned to my shopping. I kept thinking about that misunderstanding and how it could have worked out better for both of them. Too often when we are caught in a conflict or conversation we advise, probe, interpret or evaluate before we take the time to understand. The sales lady didn't explain why she had to wait, but the customer didn't even give the worker three seconds before she found her own "solution." It's difficult to find a solution when you listen with the intent of being understood instead of being effective and listening with the intent to understand.

This is a hard habit to develop. My biggest struggle with this habit can be aided with patience. Sometimes I get so excited about what I have to say next that I don't even hear what someone else is saying at that moment. If I remain conscious of the first four habits (being proactive, beginning with the end in mind, putting first things first and thinking win-win) this mindset can flourish much faster.
Author David Brandon summed up this habit when he said, "If I could only throw away the urge to trace my patterns in your heart, I could really see you."

I challenge you to apply this idea of communicating to any and every setting you're in and see just how effective you and others can be. As I learned in the Seven Habits of Highly Effective People seminar, I can be a greater influence with others, find solutions to complex problems, get clarity on real issues and solve problems faster if I seek first to understand, then to be understood.

For more information on this habit or strengthening communication and relationships in your life, contact the Airman and Family Readiness Center at (720) 837-6681.
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