Seek first to understand, then to be understood

Most people don't listen to understand, they listen with the intend to reply.

George Stefanis
George Stefanis
Seek first to understand, then to be understood

I first came across this quote from the book 7 habits of highly effective people by Stephen Covey1 and I actually found it very intriguing. The problem I found out judging from myself, and from other people, is that especially in times of critical conversations I wasn't actively listening. Instead I would focus on the words and miss the meaning. A lot of people are also not even listening. Instead they would only think their reply or the next question to ask. 2 Before diving any deeper I need to first introduce a couple of concepts.

First principles thinking is a way of breaking down problems into its basic elements and then reassemble them from the ground up 3. Elon Musk is notorious for thinking in terms of first principles. Here is one of his quotes that I feel captures the idea very well:

I think people’s thinking process is too bound by convention or analogy to prior experiences. It’s rare that people try to think of something on a first principles basis. They’ll say, “We’ll do that because it’s always been done that way.” Or they’ll not do it because “Well, nobody’s ever done that, so it must not be good. But that’s just a ridiculous way to think. You have to build up the reasoning from the ground up—“from the first principles” is the phrase that’s used in physics. You look at the fundamentals and construct your reasoning from that, and then you see if you have a conclusion that works or doesn’t work, and it may or may not be different from what people have done in the past

The next concept I need to introduce is active listening. By practicing active listening you can reach to the first principles easier. Getting answers to such questions as Why did a person reacted that way? or What was the real motivation for this?. But lets dive a little bit deeper into that concept.

Active listening

Active listening is the pattern of listening that keeps you engaged with you conversation partner in a positive way 4.

You might be asking, "Sure, but how do I do that?". Here's some tips:

  • Listen attentively
  • Paraphrase what the other person says in order to verify understanding
  • Reflect back what is said, repeating verbatim here is fair play
  • Withhold judgement or advice. The road to hell is paved with good intentions. Listen, don't speak.
  • Listen with all your senses.

That last point, about listening with all your senses, is very important but also a bit confusing. Let me clarify what I think that means:

  • Be Neutral and non-judgemental
  • Be patient, don't feel the silences. Embrace them.
  • Give verbal/non-verbal feedback (nodding, saying "aha" etc)
  • Ask questions to clarify points you might not understand
  • Reflect back to what was said (the paraphrasing we mentioned before)
  • Summarize to verify you understood what it was said.

Why is that important though? The purpose of active listening is to gain the trust of others and understand them. It's great for occasions like meeting new people, managing people (especially on your 1-to-1s), generally at work when meeting with your colleagues.

Some things you shouldn't do:

  • Getting lost in your head or getting distracted
  • Being disrespectful to the other person
  • Hearing only the words and missing the meaning that is being conveyed.
  • Interrupting
  • Not making eye contact
  • Rushing the other person
  • Topping up the story (saying things like "That reminds me of that time I ...")
  • Ask unimportant questions or focus details and missing the big picture
  • Ignore when your don't understand something
  • Forget what was said earlier (one of managers always told me to bring a notebook in the meetings)
  • Pretending to pay attention. People know, You are not as good of an actor as you think.

Meaning and Understanding according to Wittgenstein

To understand is to know what to do.

— Wittgenstein

Since understanding is the main thesis of this post we can't omit referring to the work of Ludwig Wittgenstein, the Austrian-British philosopher. Wittgenstein was critical towards the psychologism5 of meaning.

Various schools of philosophy have assumed that meaning of linguistic expression consists of being conscious of internal states. In simpler words when someone says something it has to do with their internal psychological state. That view was heavily criticized by Wittgenstein. 6

Whittgenstein believed that meaning, explanation and understanding are interrelated concepts. For him the explanation of a meaning takes place within some context like the way of life of a person, language, mental models etc.

Another important part of his theory was around the fact that every question starting with Why? must ultimately reach a point where a thing must be accepted as such. That's precisely the concept of First Principles we talked before. It leads us to the conclusion that starting questioning things with Why? will eventually lead us to the first principles, which we need in order to gain a better understanding of the situation at hand.

It is important to highlight that Wittgenstein doesn't deny the fact that meaning and understanding depend on a persons experiences. What he does deny though is that you need to be aware of those experiences in order to get to the understanding. His reasoning behind that is the fact that "We investigate logically or conceptually, not empirically or psychologically".

So is understanding some kind of a process? No, says Wittgenstein. A process comprises of a sequence of events which are linked together exhibiting both change and unity. While the sequence of those events is important in a process such as assembling a car, it's less so in understanding. More importantly, according to our friend Ludwig, the concept of time is very important in that car assembly but really not so in understanding.

Understanding then is an ability and it's connected strongly with action. Abilities and skills are acquired and it's nothing more than the mastery of a technique. A good parallel to all this is chess. The mastery of the rules of chess and the action of playing it will eventually lead to mastery. Acquiring that important skill. A final emphasis from Wittgenstein's theory is that meaning is functional, not definitional.

OK, so where does that leave us? What are those rules? What is the action we can take to better understand before seeking understanding?

Establishing first principles

Establishing those first principles, breaking a problem to its basic elements and then reconstructing it, is the way forward. And it's something that isn't intuitive. It's something we need to take constant action on, like Wittgenstein theorized.

How should you establish the first principles? Through Socratic questioning, the disciplined questioning to establish truths. Here is how it goes:

  1. Clarify your thinking. Ask: Why do I think this?, What exactly do I think?
  2. Challenge assumptions. Ask: How do I know this is true?, What if I though the opposite?
  3. Looking for evidence. Ask: How can I back this up?, What are the sources?
  4. Consider alternative perspectives. Ask: What might others think?, How do I know I am correct?
  5. Examine consequences and implications. Ask: What if I'm wrong?, What are the consequences if I am?
  6. Question the original questions. Ask: Why did I think that?, Was I correct?

If you reached all the way down here you might be wondering Why should I do all that?. The reason is that it stops you from relying to your gut to make decisions and also stops you from giving emotional responses. I found out from personal experience that those two things alone can completely derail your ability to understand things and as a result to be misunderstood yourself.

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  5. Psychologism is a philosophical position according to which psychology plays a central role in grounding or explaining some other non psychological fact. ↩︎