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  • Autumn Swain

For a Better View, Seek Understanding

I had an interesting conversation with my mom the other day. I had shared with her how my experiences have led me to believe that most issues have the healthiest solutions when arriving somewhere in the middle. I have found that most views point to either end of a spectrum, and are often clouded by a lack of understanding of the other perspective. My mom made an interesting observation that this reality often exists because people have a hard time not being right. From a single view point, things will be seen one way and therefore it will look to that person that it is the right way. But that’s just it, its from one vantage point; whereas, if you look from another vantage point the view is quite different.

“Seek first to understand, then be understood,” says Stephen Covey in his book 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. He challenges readers to ask themselves, "how well am I listening to others?" In a conversation do you effectively and sincerely listen to the other person? Or are you processing what you want to say in return so that you are properly understood? This habit applies to everything from having a healthy marriage to solving major global development issues.

Every time my husband and I argue, you can bet that we are both partially wrong and partially right. If I were to stand at my end of the spectrum demanding that I am right and that he just doesn’t understand me, that would lead us no where productive. However, developing this habit fosters a greater desire to genuinely understand where the other person is coming from and not just focus on making your point heard. We now meet at a healthier place somewhere in the middle because that's where progress is made.

The same principle applies to solving world issues. We need to listen and understand various perspectives related to the issue at hand to come to the most effective solution. When approaching complex societal situations, I would argue that we need both compassion efforts that meet an immediate need as well as community development and social justice efforts that are more long term solutions. For example, we need to feed the hungry while developing solutions that will work towards eradicating world hunger at a systemic level.

OK, so most people would agree with me on that one. But what about conversations on public aide, war and education? Will the academic achievement gap begin to close when we focus on issues related to academics? One person’s vantage point is that if we could change our schools and curriculum it would help our kids most significantly. Or, is the solution related to home life and we need to focus on restoring broken families and concentrate on physical and mental well-being? This vantage point sees that kids won’t even be able to focus in school if they don’t have the proper nutrition or mental health to succeed. Or is the spiritual component missing, and the solution is to help youth be confident in who they are because then they will know their identity and therefore understand their purpose? This vantage point sees that while people may take faith out of our schools, we can’t take it out of our solutions. Spiritual wellness is too connected to every other area of life including one’s physical, mental and social well-being. All of these vantage points contain truth, but people often view their vantage point as the only correct one, struggling to acknowledge that other people have an important perspective as well.

So in instances related to race, culture, ethnicity, and faith, I recommend we “seek first to understand, then be understood.” Don’t worry so much about being right or wrong, but about the right solution. Imagine how much more you will grow as a person and build others up if you really desired to understand another's perspective. Imagine how much healthier and well-rounded your viewpoint would become and therefore the maturity level of your paradigm.

Why do people struggle with taking the time to genuinely understand another’s point of view? I think what my mom had to say hit the nail on the head: "People like to be right, and acknowledging otherwise is hard." I have found success in doing so through my faith--Christ is the ultimate example of genuine humility and love.

“Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 2:3-5)


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