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Seeking to Understand

Published February 24, 2017
Countries: USA
Age Levels: 12 and up

Stephen Covey was listed by Times Magazine in the USA as one of the 25 most influential Americans. He is well known around the world for being the author of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. The book has sold mover than 25 million copies around the world. I am certain that Mr. Covey could substitute to the world people with the two words business leader. Seeking to Understand others in Business.

Covey reminds readers of the importance of communication. We spend years learning to read and write and a lifetime learning to speak. But it is rare when individuals take time to learn to listen and to understand other individuals. Our tendency is to seek to be understood in order to get our point across. Doing this causes us to miss much of what other persons are trying to tell us. Not only do we miss much of the meaning of what is being said, we ourselves are sometimes taken for being egocentric and self-serving. We should seek first to understand others before trying to be understood. Not doing so may cause us to alienate ourselves from the individuals with who we hope to do business.

American teachers have popular statement that is used when teaching children to listen better. “We have two ears and one mouth.” It is better to listen than to speak when trying to get to know someone better. We should promote active listening where the premise “To TALK is to teach. To LISTEN is to learn. The winner is a conversation will always be the better listener. The goal is to know your friends AND your enemies better than they know you. Covey suggests striving to be an empathetic listener. It helps to repeat portions of what the other person said. This shows you were listening. Consider rephrasing their comments to show them that you understood. A particularly good communicator I know makes comments like, “What I think you are saying is…” He reflects on his understanding of what he has heard. As they open up and talk more, consider rephrasing and reflecting even more. Observe both verbal and nonverbal cues as you talk with the end goal of being able to fully communicate so you can do business together and work together to solve common problems.  


Story: Learning to Communicate - Mother cat took her two kittens outside for a picnic lunch. She told her kittens to stay nearby and to stay away from the fence that held the neighbor’s dog. Kittens are much like some children and very much like many adults. They do not listen well.

The two kittens walked close the fence. They began to tease the dog. “Dog, you are ugly. Dog, you are dumb. Dog, you talk funny.” Every insult was met with loud barking. The barks made the kittens act even meaner.

The dog began to run around the yard barking and looking for a way to escape the yard and get revenge on the taunting kittens. It tries going over the fence. But it was too high. It tied going around the fence. But there were no unlocked openings. The dog tried to run through the fence. That only caused pain and brought more teasing. Then as the kittens went to find their mother and eat their lunch, the dog decided to dig under the fence.

The dog had escaped. It began running after the two mean kittens. It did what angry dogs do. It showed its teeth. It growled and barked. The dog would have its revenge!

Mother cat hissed and spit. It arched its back, trying to protect its young from the ferocious dog. Mother cat did a very strange thing.  Mother cat began to bark in a scary dog voice that was even louder than the bark of the dog. The barking scared the dog. It ran home and went back under the fence and packed dirt back into the hole to keep the scary cat out.

Mother turned to her kittens and said, “From now on, you two listen when I talk. Also, in school – remember to learn a foreign language. You never can tell when it will come in handy!”


Extension to the topic of seeking first to understand: The Ugly American is a book that was written in 1958 by Eugene Burdick and William Lederer. It is a political novel, a complete fiction. At first the book had only mediocre success. Then the American government tried to ban the book because it portrayed many Americans who lived and worked overseas as living pretentiously and as being somewhat arrogant. It was very critical of the U.S. Foreign Service. The efforts to ban the book caused more and more readers to buy and read the book until it became a best seller. It was on the best seller list for 78 weeks and sold over 4,000,000 copies.

There were two types of people who read the book. Individuals who wish to “talk first in order to be understood” hated the book. They criticized the clueless characters who alienated the people they sought to serve because they could not effectively communicate. Those who sought to “understand first and later to be understood” found the book to have a sound message. They favored the American characters in the book who learned to communicate and who sought to understand the people.

Love it or hate it – The Ugly American is a worthy book to read. It can still be ordered inexpensively from many used book stores.   It was re-released in 1999 and can be bought new for less than $9.