The most helpful book I read in 2020 was written by a Mormon. Even though we're divided by faith, the author had wisdom to offer that transcended our categories.
The book is well-known—Stephen Covey’s The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People—which has been so influential in business circles since it was first published in 1989. Some of the habits have been cited so pervasively as to become cliches: “be proactive,” “win-win,” “synergy.”
But Covey’s fifth habit, “Seek First to Understand, Then to Be Understood,” has received less attention. That’s a shame. In our world today—amidst cancel culture, political polarization and growing divisions along racial, geographic and economic lines—this is a habit we all need. I know I do.
Long before Twitter or the Trump presidency, Covey wrote this: “Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply. They’re either speaking or preparing to speak. They’re filtering everything through their own paradigms, reading their autobiography into other people’s lives. … We’re filled with our own rightness, our own autobiography. We want to be understood. Our conversations become collective monologues, and we never really understand what’s going on inside another human being.”
Covey’s words hit me hard. I immediately thought how as a parent, I’m often too quick to discipline my kids for disobedience—yet sometimes find that I misunderstood why they failed to obey me. Sometimes they had a conflicting instruction from their mom, which I wasn’t aware of. Sometimes they hadn’t heard me. Sometimes their disobedience was more out of weakness than out of willfulness. Yet I often assume they're defying me.
Or at work, where my job involves giving communications advice to executives, I’ve often been too focused on what makes good communication, than on how communication fits into the larger task those executives are trying to accomplish. Covey wrote that “unless you understand me and my unique situation and feelings, you won’t know how to advise or counsel me. What you say is good and fine, but it doesn’t quite pertain to me.” I need to learn that lesson.
Christians should be the best at the habit of seek first to understand. After all, the Bible voices a similar idea in Proverbs 20:5: “The purpose in a man’s heart is like deep water, but a man of understanding will draw it out.” Or in James 1:19: “Let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger.” How many of us practice such verses on social media? Or when we discuss politics?
Too many of us—myself included—focus on telling people what we think, rather than truly trying to understand what they think and why. We get angry at others for not agreeing with us. But as Christians we know—because the Bible tells us—that getting angry does not cause our own views to happen—even if they are right. James, in the very next verse after the one I quoted above, writes this: “for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God.”
Too many of us—myself included—live as if only people with similar views to mine have anything worth hearing. We watch FOX News or MSNBC, or listen to our preferred podcasts that cater to our existing biases, or read only those writers with the labels we agree with. But such habits of media consumption make it almost impossible to seek first to understand.
I can read and benefit from a Mormon writer because, as Augustine said, “All truth is God’s truth.” Or, if you prefer a more recent theologian, John Frame wrote in his book The Doctrine of the Knowledge of God: "all knowledge, as we will see, is a recognition of divine norms for truth; it is a recognition of God's authority. Therefore, in knowing anything, we know God. Even those without the Scriptures have this knowledge." That's not the same as personal, saving knowledge of God, Frame explains. But it is something even non-Christians can have and from which Christians can benefit.
So my challenge—to myself first, but also to other Christians—is to make 2021 a year when we seek first to understand, before we try to make ourselves understood. Doing that will make us more faithful to scripture and more effective in our witness to a divided world.