Seek first to Understand, then to be Understood


This article was published in the Otago Daily Times on 26 September 2020. It gives tips on how to have challenging conversations within in your team so that issues can be resolved before they escalate into conflict.

Never in the history of calming down has anyone calmed down by being told to calm down.  But how do we address the ‘elephant in the room’ if we are afraid of other people losing their cool and us not being able to handle it?  Especially if we need to act professionally at work.

In our last column,  Sarah Cross discussed how important is it to engage with individuals in an organisation at a personal level to make change happen. Getting other people to make a change we want them to do is hard unless we appeal to both the emotional and the rational sides of their brains.  Sarah described the emotional side as an elephant and the rational side brain as its rider.  She said: “When things are going well, the rider appears to be in control. But the rider’s control is in fact precarious, because if the six-tonne elephant doesn’t want to let the rider lead it, the rider is helpless. And if the elephant becomes angry, scared or hurt, the rider is at its complete mercy”.

The work I am involved in is often targeted at dealing with such ‘elephants’ at group level within or at the top of the organisation.  For example, when a Board chairperson or CEO knows there is an enormous or controversial issue that needs to be dealt with by their leadership team,  but no one wants to discuss it because it makes them uncomfortable.  Usually because it is personally or politically embarrassing or an inflammatory issue. How can something as conspicuous as an elephant be overlooked by smart adults, particularly when it is an issue that is holding an organisation back from making positive change?

The answer is, because there is a risk it will expose a conflict between members of that group.  Kiwis tend to be conflict averse. We don't like to say what's really bothering us.  We tend to be quite polite and in so doing we think that means you don't say what's on your mind because you think it might be somehow rude. However to get the heart of a matter or the root cause of a problem, I believe you need to see conflict as positive.  It is an opportunity to make change happen.  It is even best to deal to the elephants before they evolve into outright conflicts and become destructive to your organisation.

To effectively resolve a conflict, you must be willing to see other people as they see themselves.   As best you can, you must put aside your own views and walk in their shoes. No matter how unreasonable a person seems when voicing how they truly feel, in their own mind -  in that moment -  their words or actions are justified.   In this sense,  your team members are no different from you. Even the person whom you find the most difficult is certain that they are right. If you try to convince them that they are wrong, they will defend themselves.  While you think they are the one with the problem, from their perspective you should be the one who changes!

This is common sense when the elephant in your brain is under control and you are not facing the prospect of the elephant in the room (aka the difficult subject no one wants to discuss).  It is a common theme in cultures around the world.  It is even referenced in Habit #5 of Steven Covey’s The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People: “Seek first to understand, then to be understood." However when the rider in your brain loses control of your elephant, common sense falls away and emotions take over.  In order to keep the rational side of our brain in control, it useful to approach discussing difficult issues by applying “the Transactional Analysis”.

Transactional Analysis (developed by Dr Eric Berne) looks into the ego state of people involved in social interactions.  At any stage, we may be like a parent, child or adult. This affects how we see issues, and how we treat the people we are communicating with.  These ego-states are:

When we are parent-like we tend to talk down to others and want to control them.  When we are child-like we can avoid ownership of problems and moan about them.  Being like an adult is the ideal state for us when discussing and resolving difficult issues.  Then we have control of ourselves and take responsibility for meeting our own needs.  We are also more willing and able to understand the perspective of other people.  For example, when a parent to child dynamic is in play, one person may be talking down to the other. When we talk adult to adult, we treat each other as equal.

To have ‘adult-like’ conversations:

Conversations like this can take us to the heart of conflict resolution. As long as we come from a place of right and wrong, the chances for understanding each other are slim. Dealing to the elephant in the room is not about us getting our way, nor about convincing others of your position. There should be no individual winners or losers, but for the good of your organisation or team, the elephant needs to be brought into the open and  made to leave the room.   Then you can all move forward.

That is the power of the elephant.