Seek First to Understand, Then Be Understood

by Jack Mateer

June 7, 2022

Seek first to understand, then be understood is a golden rule in communication. Stephen Covey discusses this approach in his Habit #5 of the 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.

This great, but difficult, rule is where one employs active listening to ensure they are receiving and understanding what another individual is transmitting. It’s very effective to gather information.

But we might dig in and take this “seeking first to understand, then be understood” to a deeper, more complete level… a level that takes the engagement of two or more individuals or organizations further, to the level of gaining a greater knowledge and deeper, common understanding of those involved.

Help Me, Help You, Help Me

Have you ever thought that an individual or organization upon which you rely on only exists to make your life more difficult? Me too.

As an aircraft maintenance officer in the U.S. Air Force assigned to the flight line, our Supporting Back Shop Component Repair team (effectively an offsite part repair group) seemed to always make it difficult for my team to keep our aircraft fully mission capable. They would slow roll repairs, fail to have the right expert available, or delay an inspection. Frustrating!

In a later assignment, I led those same back shop component repair organizations. Amazingly, my former flight line maintenance team was slow to provide parts for repair or were constantly changing the scheduled inspections. It completely upended my organization’s ability to plan for resources and manage parts.

Then one day, I asked myself, “Why would any organization make life more difficult for another when there is mutual reliance in the relationship? We, literally, were all on the same team, and, again literally, wearing the same uniform.”

I channeled my inner Covey to “seek first to understand, then be understood” and then dove to the next level. I did more than actively listen when inquiring into the other organization’s “failures” to support mine. I asked them what their challenges were and how I could “help you, help me.”

The Five Why’s

The 5 Why’s is an excellent and easy technique to identify root causes. It basically consists of a leader asking “why” each time a reason is provided as the cause of a problem.

Following each response, the leader asks another “why?” This proceeds for at least five “why’s”

Generally, the answer to fifth “why” gets to the root cause (Normally something relating to training, tools or “tech data” …but that’s a subject for another time) which can then be addressed. All the previous questions of “why” uncover symptoms of the root cause and will only reappear as a new symptom if given a cure.

In exploring the many “why’s” for the supporting organization’s “failures,” we gain an understanding of what constraints (things we’re forced to do) and restraints (things we’re prohibited from doing) the other organization is operating under. Additionally, we may find areas where our organization is impeding the progress of the supporting organization, thus uncovering where “I can help you, help me.”

In some of the cases, I experienced the back shops were lacking the required new subcomponents or they were experiencing high turnover of technicians causing delays due to training. In many cases, my flight line maintainers were not coding the malfunctions correctly thereby forcing the back shops into extended trouble shooting… we were the problem, and I didn’t know it! Once I was able to “understand” then I could do something to “help them, help me.”  

We Are Part of the Solution

When we are genuinely inquisitive and dig in to fully understand what is happing in another organization upon which we depend, we find out where we can be a part of the solution. Moreover, we might even find areas where we or our team were unknowingly the cause of a problem.

When we “seek first to understand, then be understood,” we are truly on the road to a much more meaningful, broader, and deeper success. We stop working against each other and actively bring others along on our journey.

We encourage you to subscribe for a free, weekly email (no ads nor fees) to the latest Maximum Standard leadership lesson. This is a great opportunity to improve your leadership through reading, and then think about and discuss leadership with your peers to improve. We are also always looking for guest authors to share their experiences like Jack Mateer expertly did this week. 

Lead well!

Jack Mateer is a recently retired Air Force Colonel with 32 years and 1 day of military service as an aircraft and munitions maintenance officer. His leadership experience spans operations, sustainment, logistics, and defense support to civil authorities where he focused on data driven solutions. He commanded at every major echelon from Group-Level and below and deployed multiple times to the Middle East. Jack earned three master’s degrees in Adult and Higher Learning, Leadership and National Security Studies and is a 1990 graduate of the Air Force Academy.

His thoughts do not necessarily represent the views of the United States Air Force nor United States Military.

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