Seek to understand 1

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Have you ever participated in or been a witness to one of those silent (although sometimes very loud) conflicts between a subordinate and the boss? They usually last for months, sometimes even years. People are living with them by rationalizing it as character incompatibility, hard times, or, the worst case, bad will. They seem to be unsolvable and deeply embedded into our reality. However, that is not the case. Let’s start with some example situations.

Meet developer John and his boss Anthony (former developer). John is a very valuable employee – possesses good technical knowledge, has worked several years for the company and is passionate. Anthony is an experienced manager, fair and righteous to his subordinates and other people. However, many close cooperations result in friction. John is usually quite sure that he has done his work well, delivered what was required and that he did it on time. At the same time Anthony complains about quality, problems and drawbacks. Now imagine what you sometimes hear about your precious lines of code. Sometimes such interaction finishes in a big and loud argument, ending usually by the right assumption that such conversation should be finished as fast as possible as it doesn’t make any sense. Sometimes the interaction finishes in a discussion about how exactly deliverables shall be defined – what level of details, how quality should be measured, and so on. However, not much time passes before the whole situation repeats itself.

Here is another example, a simplified one that very often occurs in office spaces. Meet developer Jackson and his manager Ethan. Ethan set up a half hour status meeting for every day. He would like to know exact status of the project to meet very demanding customer expectations. Jackson hates those meetings. He simply feels they are a total waste of time. He would be able to do so much more work in that time. Jackson and Ethan have spoken several times about the meeting. They both know each others rationales very well. However, neither of them agrees and silent conflict continues, decreasing overall atmosphere and productivity.

For the moment, please do not take any side of the conflict. In fact, I know that you probably have already done it as your experience matches one of the roles. Spend 30 seconds imagining yourself on the opposite side and consider its rationales. I can assure you, that both sides are correct. Both have their reasons and logical basis that are correct and reliable. So what can be done to meet each other halfway and finish the endless conflict other than quitting their job?

I will refer here to one of my favorite classics:

Seek first to understand, then to be understood.

It is one of seven habits defined by Stephen R. Covey in his book, The seven habits of highly effective people (if you haven’t read it, I strongly recommend you add it to your “must read” list). Its meaning is simple – before you will rationalize your position, first allow the opposing side to do it. But not only listen – seek to really understand their message. Forget for a moment about your arguments. Focus fully on their reasons, problems, solutions. Step into the role of a consultant trying to understand his client problems and help to solve them. Following this way you will have several gains:

  • you will really understand what problem the opposite side has and what solution they are trying to apply. You will also be able to consciously adjust to it if you would like to,
  • you will earn points as you will show deep levels of empathy and prove your soft skills,
  • and most important: as you open yourself to influence from the opposite side, you will have the possibility to influence it as well. You shall be able to present your rationales in the meaningful context of the opposing arguments and try to reach a solution satisfying for both sides.

Even if the opposing side act really tough, you still have nothing to lose. You can only win a higher level of understanding and new possibilities.

Following this way is not a simple task. It requires a lot of self discipline, hiding your ego and holding your temper. There is a set of tricks that can help you keep on track if you would like to apply it:

  • whenever you are coming for a meeting where you might expect a conflict – write a note on a piece of paper that you will have all the time before your eyes: ‘Seek to understand, hide my ego!’,
  • whenever you are feeling red colors or heat in your head during discussion, remind yourself of the above note: ‘Seek to understand, hide my ego!’ and ask yourself a question: Do I want to accomplish something or just release my frustration?
  • write a note on a piece of paper: ‘Seek to understand, hide my ego!’ and hang it in a place where you are spending most of your day,
  • read the book that 15% of this topic is about:  The seven habits of highly effective people.


So, how do John and Anthony resolve the situation if either of them were to apply the above principle?

John holding his ego: John would know what bothers Anthony – he was worried that John is not taking care of his tasks properly and suspected that John is able to deliver more and better (lets not dig into details why that could happen – I will cover it in a separate post. For this case we can assume that either Anthony or John were not aware of some part of the company reality). After admitting it calmly, there is a whole new range of possibilities on how to continue from this point.

Anthony holding his ego: Anthony would know what bothers John – he really cares about the project and issues, but there are several company constraints, organizational and technical ones, that are both unmotivating and blocking productive work. Now true co-operation might start targeting the real problems.

And what about Jackson and Ethan? Jackson would be aware that his problematic customer is paranoid about reports and Ethan is not at fault here. He can either accept the reality, change his job or figure out a way to have automatic reporting replacing the meeting. Ethan would be aware how demotivating the meeting is due to showing a lack of trust. He would be able to take actions to improve relations with Jackson.

All of us use the ‘seek first to understand’ principle to some extent. However, imagine you are able to use it always, in every situation. In fact, to apply it automatically without even thinking about it. How would your understanding and area of influence expand? How would it boost your career? How would it affect your family relationships?

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  • Krzysztof Jabłoński

    Total lack of the soft skills makes an employee as useless in business situations as a total lack of the geekiness. Good article on how not to hate your boss (and other ‘pain in the ass guy’s who want things). Wish I’ve read it earlier.