My favorite quote from Stephen Covey’s book is also probably his most famous: “Seek first to understand, and then be understood.” It was the fifth habit in his classic book, but it was in his own estimation the most important one of all in terms of interpersonal relationships.
Yet most people stress the first half of the quote and treat the second half as filler. Even Covey devoted only two pages in a 22 page chapter to that side of his principle.
My point is not to downgrade the importance of “seek first to understand”. It is crucial, and anyone who has read more than a handful of the posts in this blog knows how much I stress the idea of outside-in thinking.
But…if you make a living by persuading others (and who doesn’t?), you don’t get paid for understanding people; you get paid for being understood. Understanding is crucial, but it’s not enough. Unless you can use that understanding to increase the chances that they will understand you, you haven’t gone far enough.
Some fascinating research cited in Dan Pink’s To Sell Is Human indicates that radiologists are far more meticulous and accurate in reading CT scans when there is a picture of the patient attached to the scan. No one is saying that radiologists don’t care about their patients, but somehow the simple reminder that they are looking at unique individuals unconsciously influences the way they approach their task. In the same way, I would submit that just making the effort to understand the person you’re trying to influence can unconsciously make you a more effective communicator. But there are also conscious ways that you can use your understanding to improve your chances of being understood:
Be clear, concise and candid: When you have something to say, say it—don’t beat around the bush. Lower the cost of figuring out what you’re trying to say, by speaking simply, avoiding big puffed-up words, using appropriate analogies, stories, and visuals. Focus on the why and the so what, and omit technical detail where possible.
Being concise aids clarity by forcing you to strip out anything that is not essential, and has the added benefit of making sure your message fits into today’s shrinking attention spans.
Taking the time and making the effort to understand someone else’s point of view will usually get them to open up more to you. You now have the obligation and the right to open up to them.
Customize: If you take the time to really listen and understand where the other person is coming from, and then launch into the same canned presentation that you give to everyone, you’ve just blown up any goodwill that you’ve built. You’ll look like you were merely faking it. Customization means delivering a unique message that could only pertain to them. Present the benefits of your idea in terms of their goals, aspirations and needs; use their words and their analogies; connect to what they already know.
Curtail choice: I was at a bar in Newark airport once when a man with a foreign accent asked if he could have a different side with his hamburger. The bartender said, “Of course. This is America, we have choices.” We think having a lot of choices makes us freer, but it can actually be paralyzing when we’re trying to decide. Since you’re trying to influence a decision, you need to make it easy for them to decide, by limiting the choices you present. When you don’t understand those you’re trying to influence, you tend to use a shotgun approach in hopes that something will catch their fancy. Yet we know now that too much choice reduces the likelihood someone will act or buy. Use your understanding of your listeners to present only two or three options.
Collaborative agreements: Being understood is not always a matter of expressing your thoughts in the clearest way. The strongest agreements are those that the other person decides are their own idea, when you get them to tell you what you want them to hear. You can get this done through questioning, turning your quest for understanding into a mutual process where your questions help the other person understand their own situation and motivations more clearly.
Confirm: George Bernard Shaw said “the single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.” Delivering the message is not enough. You need to confirm that it has been received in the way you intended. Sounds simple enough, but sometimes you’re afraid of what you might hear in return. I call this the 51+ rule: take at least 51% of the responsibility for your side of the communication. Don’t assume that just because you said it they understood or agreed. Test them: look them in the eyes for understanding, maybe even ask them to repeat or to confirm what they understood or what they plan to do as a result.
To summarize, let’s use Covey’s second principle: “Begin with the end in mind.” Always remember that when it comes to persuasive communication, seeking to understand is the means to your end, which is to be understood.