Seek To Understand

It goes without saying the world has been challenging for most of us in the past year. Between the pandemic and the election, it often felt like every conversation was another opportunity to find a difference of opinion with someone. As most people in the legal field will tell you, dealing with a difference of opinion seems to go with the territory. However, many of these conversations felt different, less like the minor disagreements we have on a daily basis and more like an argument could happen at any time.

As someone who has the opportunity to speak with people from all walks of life, I often felt that talking about anything other than the weather was a minefield. Sometimes even the weather could lead to discussions about climate change, but at least that subject felt easy compared to the subjects of 2020. The difficult part for many of these conversations was knowing when to speak and when to listen to a viewpoint different from my own. When I failed to speak, it felt like I was acquiescing to a view I did not share. On the other hand, speaking felt like I was imposing my views on others and it rarely seemed to change anyone’s opinion. Not a good sign for a lawyer, I know.

As difficult as many of these conversations were, they also provided some insight into my own flaws in communicating. First, I bought into the popular narrative that listening is agreeing. In today’s culture, we often feel a compelling need to make sure our opinion is heard. While some of us continue to remain in the stone ages and largely stay away from social media, we are still influenced by a culture that embraces sharing every thought, opinion, and the idea that comes to mind. While this culture has been great in shedding light on many of the social injustices in the world, it has also given rise to the idea that our opinion must always be heard.

The second flaw that I often carried into communications was my failure to recognize why some of these conversations made me feel apprehensive. It is easy to write this off as my desire to be right, but the reasoning goes far deeper. We understand the connection between fear and the unknown, but we often miss that fear or apprehension can stem from our strong belief in certain ideas. In other words, when we are so sure that our opinion is the right one, we begin to feel apprehension when others do not share our opinions. This in turn can short circuit our ability to stop and listen to an idea that is different from our own. Instead, we attempt to deal with this feeling of apprehension by either dismissing the idea outright or falling into the trap of finding sources that reinforce our own views. This can be through other individuals, the news, social media, or any other medium that provide us with the feedback loop we need to convince ourselves that we are right. When we feel that others share our view, it alleviates our apprehension by making us feel that our concerns about an opinion different from our own are valid.

The lessons for me regarding these flaws have been twofold. First, they reminded me that I can listen, and my ability to listen does not mean I must agree with the speaker. Instead, I need to listen, and as Steven Covey says “seek to understand”.  It is only then that I can determine whether I need to push back against an idea that does not fit within my belief system, or whether I need to revisit my own views. The second lesson has been to accept the feeling of apprehension when faced with ideas that are different from my own. I should not run from this feeling and attempt to find others who support my own views, rather I need to takes these moments and focus on what I can learn from ideas that are different from my own. While I would say I do not want to repeat 2020, hopefully, these lessons will stick with me for the next decade, or at least until the next time I am listening to someone with an opinion different from my own.

Ken Hochstetler


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