Seek to Understand before Being Understood

In today’s political and social environment, there seems to exist a lack of empathy for people with a different view, race, backgrounds, or religion. I am not going to really touch on these issues but only to frame the need for empathy and understanding of others in our society. In the 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, one of the habits is to seek to understand others before you get them to understand your viewpoint. There is a John Maxwell quote I have heard quite often that says “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care”.

In both life and business, the concept of empathy and understanding all viewpoints is essential.  In business, it is essential for change management, managing people, business development, and client service. I remember nearly 10 years ago starting work at an online marketing company and working to implement new policies and procedures. In my mind, all my ideas were working to improve the billing, reporting, and eventual profitability of the company. The problem was that it wasn’t coming across that way. I was coming across as a bit harsh and not understanding of the viewpoints of other teams in the organization. This was obviously hindering the speed and effectiveness of getting my new procedures implemented.

So what are some ways we can seek to understand other viewpoints better? I personally think this is more challenging than we think. How can we truly understand other viewpoints if we haven’t lived their life or experienced the challenges of their job?

I have come up with 5 ideas that will help.

1. Ask questions 

Asking questions can come in a lot of different formats. If you are meeting with someone one-on-one, they will appreciate both the questions as well as the opportunity to explain themselves. Clients and employees want to be heard. Although face-to-face is probably the most effective and empathetic way to do this, you could also use email, social media, and surveys to get other viewpoints. Different people will have varying comfort levels depending on the method of communication.

2. Consider all Perspectives

Be sure to think about how a client or prospect would feel when making a particular decision or change. Consider the following: How can I exceed the client expectations?  What is keeping my client up at night? How would my employees view this change?  What is the best way to add value to my customers and employees in the most efficient way possible? How would marketing, sales, accounting, IT, client services, or any other team in my organization view this? It is the act of actually striving to understand what it would be like to be in their situation.

3. Tolerance 

We should strive to be tolerant of others in any situation. We just need to be careful before we say someone else is being intolerant. We need some common sense. Just the fact that you say a person is intolerant is intolerant in and of itself. Empathy is important but it can go overboard. I have a son who does not like that I have recently put a monitoring service on his iPad and computer. I had trusted him a few times and I was naive. He was doing some things that I didn’t want him to do on his iPad. He could say that I am not being understanding and that I am not sensitive to his needs. He might say I am intolerant. After being too trusting, it is best that I set up some controls to be the best father I can.

4. Consider the long view when making decisions

How often does it seem like a decision might be best in the short-term, but in the long-term is, in fact, devastating? An example of this might be laying off people or having a hiring freeze in the short-term to hit the profitability goal but risking profitability and growth in future years.   Alternately, a process improvement or system change may seem hard in the short-term, but if it will save time and money and set the company up for growth in the long term, it then becomes a much more rational decision. On a more personal note, even though my son doesn’t understand my monitoring his website and social media activity, I am considering the long view.

5. Relationship with God

I find it rather difficult to have love and understanding of other people without a good relationship with God. We are called to love others as ourselves. By being forgiving and understanding, we will automatically be more empathetic and kind to others.

Today’s world has made many advancements technologically, but in the end, consists of the same human problems we have faced throughout history. It takes some time to ask questions and to consider the perspectives of others.  The idea of being tolerant is great but shouldn’t be taken to the extreme.  Consider the long view when making decisions and dealing with other people. Finally, striving for a better relationship with God will make the other 4 ideas to improve empathy easier.