Seek First to Understand

Years ago, I was assigned an exercise involving an orange that was used to illustrate the point that if we seek to understand someone else’s point of view, as opposed to trying to persuade or impose our perspective on them, we may find agreement or solutions we would otherwise never have expected.  The exercise instructions went something like this:  You and another person are given one orange along with separate instructions that each of you must have the orange to complete an assigned task.  Your assignment is to reach agreement with the other person about the use of the orange.

I think my first approach was to try and convince the other person why I needed the orange more than she did.  We then started talking about compromises, such as splitting the orange.  In short, the person I was negotiating with and I did not reach agreement before the end of the assignment.  The solution turned out to be that one person needed the orange peel to bake a cake while the other person needed the orange for food.  Neither person needed both the orange and its peel.  It was interesting to me that almost everyone involved in this exercise tried to “win” by convincing the other person, rather than by trying to address the issue by asking the simple question, “Why do you need the orange?” 

Too often, we jump to conclusions about the interests, needs, or motives of other people without taking the time to find out why someone acts or feels the way they do.  Most issues will not be as easily resolved as the orange exercise, but I have been surprised countless times over the years by how many concerns can be effectively addressed by just listening to someone before starting to think about solutions, explanations, or defenses.  A good question can also help the person who has a complaint or concern find the best solution without any assistance.

Sometimes people do have selfish motives and are actively seeking to advance their own interests at the expense of everyone else.  I think we have all dealt with people like this at some point in our lives, and it may explain why we often look to defend our own interests before seeking common ground.  Anger, sarcasm, or other accusatory weapons are also reasons why we may not want to take the time to listen to or care about another’s concerns.

Life always has its ups and downs, and I think it’s fair to say that now is a down time for many people in our families, community, and country.  Financial strain causes people to act differently than they do when they have more resources.  We can’t fix the economy overnight or even solve one person’s money problems very often.  We can, however, seek common ground with some patience and understanding.  The reward for doing so is shared evenly by all parties.