Nathanael Garrett Novosel, March 8 2023

First, Seek to Understand

Resolving conflicts has never been easy, but it feels like in a world where you can live in your own world that you never have to talk to someone who ever disagrees with you. Even debates are no longer really two people having a conversation to try to influence each other but rather each person talking to an audience to score points and "own" the other. But that won't make you better or more knowledgeable, and you might end up missing out on critical information that could significantly improve your life. So, what do you do?

I have a simple rule that I live by in these situations: "First, seek to understand." It's a simple rule. It doesn't mean to just sit there and let people have their say before you "DESTROY" them. It doesn't mean to pretend to care so you can manipulate them into hearing your side so you can convince them. It means to truly understand what someone means when they explain their point of view. Then, and only then, should you respond or make your case or decide whether to take their comments into consideration.

Why do this, and how did I come upon this? Well, the reason is that it makes you better, whether the person is correct and you adjust to the feedback, they are wrong and you hear an erroneous argument, or their statement is wrong but their underlying point is correct and so you need to account for it. I came upon this when I would resist feedback and end up finding out later that their point did make what I was trying to do better; I also found that others would often jump in and shut down something I was saying or disagree with me even though what I was saying was correct or agreeing with them. In both cases, it would drive me nuts that either myself or the other person would rather justify their choices than hear out what was being said. Let's go through each scenario and discuss where "First, seek to understand" can improve your life.

Understanding Gives You the Benefits of Others' Insights

I have found that I don't like criticism but I love suggestions for how to approach something. In the former, someone is saying that/how you were wrong; in the latter, they are just giving you a good idea that either validates your thinking or pushes your thinking without being critical. So, when you first seek to understand, you ask for someone's opinion, perspective, or recommendation and frame it more in a positive way of seeing if you're missing anything. It also avoids a situation where you have a meeting or review where you are supposed to be looking for feedback but it's really a "look for mistakes" session where you just keep talking through what you did to try to avoid any criticism. That just wastes everyone's time, and no one is happy. So asking someone for ideas of where you can go from here vs. revisiting and correcting mistakes is a great way to open yourself up to hearing what someone is saying, making you more likely to get ideas you hadn't thought of and incorporate them into your work.

Understanding Helps You See Opposing Viewpoints

In the event that your opposing position is either incorrect given the situation or not how you would weight the factors (and so you come to a different conclusion), you can learn about how they are viewing and thinking about the situation and what you can do if you face resistance with the final product. Maybe they didn't consider something at first glance; maybe they are unknowledgeable about a specific rule or constraint that you have.  It could be that their reasoning went awry somewhere. In any case, you are learning how they are viewing it, and that can make you better. In the best-case scenario, they might be wrong but you still change your approach because it would stop people from having the same reaction. Differing viewpoints, even if you ultimately judge them as not relevant to what you are trying to do, are very useful to reinforcing your efforts—whether you are writing a paper, creating a piece of art,  preparing a speech, or trying to get approval for a project.

Understanding Helps You to Find Even Greater Improvements Than Anyone Has Actually Articulated

This one is my personal favorite because almost no one does this when arguing or receiving feedback, and it is very much a "whole is greater than the sum of its parts" kind of thing. When arguing, most people listen to what people say and try to use it against them; they don't listen to what they actually mean. Yes, it's a great trick to "win" in a public forum, but it is counterproductive one on one—especially when you are trying to maintain or build a relationship with someone. The most important part of "first, seek to understand" is to try to hear and grasp what people mean, not what they say. In an argument with someone you care about, it shows that you are not just arguing to win but you genuinely want to see their side of the situation. But when receiving feedback, it is a hugely powerful approach because you might learn something from someone even if what they are suggesting you do is completely wrong.

For example, I often have someone suggest that I change a title or move a graphic in my presentations, and constraints prevent me from doing those things. However, when I understand why they want me to make that change—e.g., they audience won't understand, it detracts from the main point—I think of an alternative that will work. So I come up with a better option on my own, but I would've never thought to do it if it weren't for the suggestion that, to a dismissive person, would have been irrelevant or useless. This gives you an edge over everyone else because you are improving beyond where others would stop.

Understanding Saves You Time

As I mentioned earlier, I found out often that if I received feedback that I didn't like and they didn't explain it, I would just not follow it. Often—if not usually—they'd make me do it later, anyway, and I would then find out why and realize that I had to follow the suggestion. So I found out that it saved a lot of time if I just asked why someone made a suggestion and they would almost immediately change my mind. It's a lot faster and easier to just understand and incorporate the feedback instead of resisting only to have to face it again later.

Understanding Might Just Actually Alleviate or Resolve the Conflict (or Avoid Making It Worse)

I mentioned above that I hated having my point dismissed when I knew that the person didn't understand it at all. All it did was make me want to either argue more (if I could) or subversively try to do things my way (or at least drag my feet kicking and screaming doing it their way). You can be sure that it has similar effects on others, too. This one is the biggest "quick win" out of all of these because often times people think that they are arguing but are really either saying the same thing in different ways or making completely different points that can both be true without negating each other. One example is when you find out that someone was defining a word differently than you and so it turns out you actually agree on the right approach once you arrived at a common definition of terms. Another example is the famous 80s "Tastes Great!" "Less Filling!" commercial from Miller Lite where two halves of a crowd are arguing over what makes Miller Lite great when, in fact, a beer can (at least in their view) both taste great and be less filling. Finally, even if there is a disagreement, you hear it out and can address it in the moment so that the other person doesn't run into the point above about not listening until you finally bother to explain why they should listen do you. In every case, you avoid unnecessary conflict, resentment, and antagonism.

In short, I highly recommend the "First, seek to understand" approach to approaching disagreements. No, it won't magically make you agree with everyone on everything. What it does do is make you better and avoid making a relationship worse, and those, in my opinion, are two huge wins in your life. You get better, feel better, and relate better. Some people might still be jerks no matter what you do, but your collaborations will be so much more effective with the ones who aren't.

Written by

Nathanael Garrett Novosel


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