Seek First to Understand Before Being Understood

In Dale Carnegie’s book, “How to Win Friends and Influence People,” (my favorite book of all time) he talks about how “everyone is right from their own perspective,” so why argue against it? He also mentions, “you can win more friends in two months taking a genuine interest in others than you can in two years trying to get them interested in you.’ Wise words, indeed, Dale!


To best illustrate both of these points, he discusses a personal experience he had while walking his dog through the park. I will do my best to paraphrase and summarize.


One summer’s day, Dale is walking his dog through the part as he has done many times before. It’s a small, well-behaved dog. It’s a large part and it’s not a very popular one either, as there’s hardly ever anyone there.


Then, unexpectedly, a cop comes over to Dale and not-so-kindly demands that Dale have his dog on a leash. The officer assures him that if he sees him with his dog off-leash again in the future, he will be certain to write him a citation. Dale does not agree with the officer’s approach, tone, or demand. Personally, he sees no threat of harm from having his dog off-leash, but still, he complies…For about a month that is.


Not having seen the officer for about a month since their last encounter, Dale figures it’s safe to take his dog off-leash again. Guess what happens that day? You guessed it – the officer’s back and catches Dale with his dog off-leash.


Now, Dale’s initial reaction would have been to argue with the officer. Unfiltered, I imagine Dale would have liked to have said something like, “Come on, man, seriously? You’ve got to be kidding! It’s a small dog, it’s a huge park, there’s hardly anyone here. Do you really have nothing better to do than harass me?” I also imagine if he would have said that, he would have been very unlikely to escape punishment. With that type of reaction, the situation could have easily escalated into something much greater than what it was.


Instead of acting impulsively, however, Dale decided to take the “first seek to understand then be understood approach.” He did the absolute best job he could to take the cop’s perspective and show the officer his ability to empathize.


“I’m sorry, officer.” Dale said immediately as the officer approached. “I knew the rules and I broke them.” His ability to admit fault disarmed the cop who was likely expecting an argument.


Then speaking genuinely and sincerely, Dale said to the officer, “I admire and appreciate what you do in serving and protecting this community. I understand that the park rules are here for a reason – for the safety and security of others and myself – and I failed to consider that. I accept whatever consequence you feel is appropriate and truly do apologize. It won’t happen again.”


What happened next is a phenomenon beyond anything of which Dale could have anticipated. He was so good at taking the cop’s perspective, that the cop actually argued his perspective for him!


“Don’t be too hard on yourself, sir,” the cop said. “It’s a large park. You’ve got a small dog. He seems well-behaved to me. To be honest, there aren’t too many people who come to this park anymore, anyway. Let me tell you what, I don’t see a problem with you having this dog off-leash. Just make sure to keep him close and if anyone ever tries to give you any trouble about it, just tell them Officer Bob said it was okay.”


Needless to say, Dale was pleasantly surprised.


Okay, so not every situation is going to turn out quite the way that one did. Still, it’s the principle that’s most important. Because Dale was humble and able to show the cop that he was empathetic and understood his perspective, by the law of reciprocation, the cop was open to seeing his perspective. In turn, he actually argued his perspective for him!


(The Law of Reciprocation basically says that when someone does something nice for you, you will have a deep-rooted psychological urge to do something nice – or even nicer – in return!)


So often in life, we make great efforts to get others to see our perspective or look impressive. Instead, if we just made a better effort to see their perspective or take a genuine interest in their life and interests, we’d end up with much greater success.

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