Seek First to Understand, Then to be Understood


This blog post is by Zach Schaffer (pictured at left with fellow Pitt students and Campus Coordinator Molly Radler). Zach is a junior studying political science and communication/rhetoric at the University of Pittsburgh. On campus he is an Israel advocate, leader in Hillel, photographer, and brother of Beta Theta Pi.  While reading Stephen Covey’s book 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, I was very intrigued with habit five of the book. As Covey writes, “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.” In other words, learn the wants and needs of your fellow student leaders, and then you can respond in a nuanced and strategic way. The David Project calls this skill “active listening.”

In short, active listening is about truly paying attention to what someone is saying. Ask them genuine questions and actually listen to their answers. Listen for tonal changes in their voice. Recognize what excites them, what makes them uneasy, and what they truly care about. Look for nonverbal cues such as smiling and leaning in.

Before you try to talk, take a moment to listen. Seek to understand the person you are talking to on a personal level. One thing Covey emphasizes is the importance of listening not just to reply, but also to understand. Make sure to pay attention to what is being said and respond in an authentic way.

In relational advocacy, we often jump-the-gun when we talk with other students on campus. We are so excited to defend Israel and share our personal narratives that we forget to listen before we speak. It’s like baking a cake without a recipe. If you don’t have something to guide what you do, then you’re wasting your time.

Covey explains, “A good salesman will know the needs of his customers.” In the same way, a good advocate will know the interests of his peers. Before you try to find common ground with someone about Israel, you need to know where to start. This is where strategically asking genuine questions and listening actively is effective.

We all have different values and interests, and the only way to create reciprocity and find common ground is to first recognize what those values and interests are. Your facts and narratives are moot if the other person is disinterested in what you are saying. You need to engage others with personal narratives that they can connect with. You all have countless Israel experiences that all kinds of people can identify with, but sharing the wrong story with the wrong person is ineffective.

If you first seek to understand who you are talking with, what they care about, and how they may be able to connect with Israel, then you can be sure to share a personal narrative that will be understood.