Seek First to Understand; Then to be Understood


Stephen Covey’s book, “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People” serves as one of my two work “bible’s”.  The book is an amazing leadership tool, as well as something to pass along to all employee’s.

Not only that, but my children’s elementary school began implementing the child’s version of these habits.  The habits are the same.  It’s the examples and explanations that are tailored to the children.  Unfortunately we moved the following year and only got a chance to spend one school year under that program.

I will get into that more later though.  Today’s focus is Habit #5-Seek first to understand; then to be understood.  I want to focus on this habit because we all think that we do a great job of listening to others.  However, do we really?

I’ve always thought that I was great at taking in information from others in a situation and assessing it before acting upon it.  Now don’t get me wrong, I’m human and certainly make my share of mistakes in that department.  But when it truly counts, I feel as though I put the extra effort out there to make it happen.

I’m going to start by offering you a mini timeline of events that took place with my oldest son, Adrian.  Adrian did well in elementary school.  We never had an issue with his grades and his teachers all had very nice things to say about him.  Once he hit middle school, it seemed as though I had a completely different child (educationally).  He failed so many classes in seventh and eight grade that I’m not even sure how he passed each grade.

In sixth grade, he had began to struggle a little bit.  It wasn’t anything major and I knew that the transition into much harder work could have been the culprit.  I figured things would even out and there wasn’t any reason to be alarmed.  Adrian also began to complain about his eyesight.  He said that he had trouble reading and seeing the chalkboard when the teacher was writing.

Now, this “eye problem” came about at the same exact time as when his dad and step mom had both just gotten glasses.  His uncle purchased “faux” glasses for looks.  Glasses seemed to be the “in thing” at the moment and Adrian had talked about looking “cool” in them.  I scheduled an appointment with the eye doctor and took him in for an exam.  After a full exam, the analysis was-perfect vision.

At this point, I explained to the eye doctor that it was my belief that he simply wanted glasses to fit in but that I wanted to be sure he wasn’t really having any trouble seeing.  The doctor assured both me and Adrian that he had perfect vision.  Adrian literally stopped talking to me and the doctor, as if the silent treatment would change the diagnosis.  Adrian continued to maintain from that point on that he had trouble seeing and he showed considerable anger towards the situation.

Now, as I stated above-seventh and eight grade were absolutely horrendous.  How did this A student completely change?  Was it pre-teen hormones?  Was it laziness?  Was it lack of understanding?  I had every talk possible with him throughout his middle school career.  His homework wasn’t getting done and/or turned in.  When asked why, I would simply get an “I don’t know”.  Completely frustrated from continually talks and punishment, I was not willing to accept “I don’t know” as an excuse.  I forced him to think about it and tell me a reason while I rattled off possible explanations:

“I don’t understand the assignment”
“I forgot my homework”
“I needed help”
“I didn’t care”
“I’m lazy”

Each time, after what seemed like forever of us going back and forth with the “I don’t know’s”-he would finally succumb to being lazy and go to his room to accept his punishment.  His seventh grade teachers hooked him up with the guidance counselor after one of our parent/teacher meetings.  I thought that maybe social awkwardness and depression was playing a role.  After all, middle school is WAY different socially from elementary school.  Combine that with all the changes a child is already going through and you could certainly have an A student go off course due to other issues.

The guidance counselor was AMAZING!  I’m not kidding.  I’ve never seen someone put effort forth the way she did.  I expected her to meet with Adrian, talk with him and give him tips on how to make friends and fit in.  That is NOT what she did.  Instead, after meeting with him-she, without stating why, invited all the kids that sat at Adrian’s lunch table to meet once per week in her office at lunchtime for pizza.  They would all hang out and she would initiate conversations that served almost as a “get to know each other game”.  WOW!  This worked!  Aside from being totally ecstatic that his social life was improving, I was hoping to see the improvement show up in his education as well.  It did not.

Finally, at the end of eighth grade-after numerous parent/teachers, emails to and from the teachers, meetings with the guidance counselor regularly, talking with Adrian constantly about his schoolwork and punishing him over and over again for not “trying”-something changed.  At parent/teacher, I heard a few things that “clicked” in my head.

Back in fourth grade, one of his teachers told me at parent/teacher that Adrian was a smart kid who did very well.  The only thing she noticed was an issue with organization.  She brought up ADD and I quickly dismissed her.  First of all, I have another child who has been diagnosed with ADHD and the father of the boys also has it.  I’ve read a dozen books and gained more education on ADHD than anybody I know.  Adrian did NOT have ADD!

Remember that child of mine that does have ADHD?  Well, I’ve worked closely with him on overcoming his challenges and educating him.  His biggest obstacle is reading.  He has a hard time sitting still and focusing for that extended period of time.  He also says that the words “blur together” on the pages when he stares at them too long.  We were advised by his fourth grade teacher to work with audible books and his reading level improved by two and a half years.  It wasn’t that he couldn’t read.  It was the ADHD getting in the way.

Since that time, I also have been diagnosed.  I previously “knew” I had it and went in for testing, only to be told no.  I was ok with that.  Anxiety, which can mimic symptoms of ADHD, was much easier to treat and get rid of.  I would be stuck with ADHD for life.  Upon seeing a psychologist for some deep abandonment issues I was experiencing, she brought up ADHD.  She had no idea I’d ever been tested or even suspected that I had it.

We went back and forth for some time about the issue.  She decided to test me and did diagnose me.  Now, here’s the relevance:

The previous psychologist stated that I could not have had ADHD because I would have had to be diagnosed prior to second grade.  The new psychologist said that’s a bunch of garbage.  “You can be smart and have ADHD.  How did you do when  you had to study?”  My response was that I never studied a day in my life.  I just picked up on things and got good grades.  I attempted college for one whole semester and found out the amount of concentration required and gave up.  I couldn’t do it.  That proved her point.

Now, I have a whole bunch of symptoms that I could share with you.  But I’ll only share the ones relevant to this article.  The previous paragraph is one.  My mind also has a tendency to work faster than I can keep up with.  I literally have to write a hundred notes a day on scratch pads everywhere.  My phone is full of more reminders in one day than you probably have in one month.  It’s great for creativity, if you can keep up with it and figure out how to carry out your plans (the Adderall that I now take fixes that!).  I read in one of my ADHD books that this is called “rapid fire”.  Imagine it like a cartoon where the character is standing there and on both sides of his/her head you see sentences flying at her over and over again.  It’s very frustrating.

Part of ADHD (especially mine) is also taking on too many projects at once.  You literally bounce back and forth never really accomplishing anything.  Your ability to prioritize and manage time is worse than a kindergartner.  Seriously!

Ok, back to Adrian.  This kid is failing language arts and art.  Yes, art!  How in the freak do you fail art?!?!  You don’t turn in your work.  His language arts teacher tells me at parent/teacher that he never finishes assignments.  I ask lots of questions and a couple of realizations dawn on me, especially with my newer diagnosis.

*Middle school is different from elementary school in the sense that you now take on an assignment and typically halfway or three fourths of the way through, you are given your next assignment.  This can be particularly challenging if you have ADD.  Maybe this explains why he isn’t completing his art work.  Maybe, just maybe, he’s working on multiple projects but never actually accomplishing anything.

So I go home to talk with Adrian.  He was not at parent/teacher with me and I’ve never, ever talked with him about the possibility of ADD.  I chose not to approach the situation that way so that I didn’t put idea’s into his head.  Instead, I sat with him for almost two hours.  I asked lots of questions, listened and (of course) took lots of notes to remind myself of what he said.  This was TRULY LISTENING.  I did not have anything in my mind when talking with him.  I literally let him talk and talk, only asking questions based on what his teachers said and what he said.  I was not angry or frustrated as I had been every time before.  This is the difference between “seeking first to understand; then to be understood”.  I was not formulating my own opinions or thoughts as he was speaking.  I was listening with every ounce of me, absorbing and trying to understand.

What came out of that?  Well, it turned out that the art issue was exactly what I had thought.  It turned out that his level of organization was so out of control that even if he remembered assignments, he would lose them anyway.  And that language art issue-he said that he would start writing a paragraph for his projects and another idea would pop into his mind.  Then another.  Then another.  Then another.  Then another.  Now, he can’t remember the first thing he was writing about and is spending all of his energy on trying to figure that out.  Remember that rapid fire above!  It’s very frustrating at times.

I asked about reading.  Turns out, his “eye issue” is exactly what his brother’s is (and he’s not aware of what his brother’s is).  The words blur together.  That’s why he was so angry with me and the eye doctor.  He really was having an issue and although it was not technically his eyes, he had no other way of describing it.  Talk about frustrating!

And his memory!  Oh, please don’t get me started on his absent mindedness.  I mistook it for laziness and uncaring before.  Now, I understand that he was putting so much effort forth and it wasn’t coming across.

Now, after talking that night-I did not mention one word of this ADD business to him.  I simply thanked him for talking with me and he went to bed.  The next day I went to work and spoke with one of my employee’s who has ADD without the “H”.  Adrian’s dad, myself and his brother all have the “H” (hyperactivity).  Mike (employee) did not.  I thought maybe that was why I didn’t notice it with Adrian.  His ADD (I thought) is probably all within him, while ours is very much out in the open due to our extroverted and hyper personalities.

I read Mike every word that Adrian had said the night before.  Mike’s response, “That’s me exactly at his age!  I did well in elementary school and began to struggle in middle school.  What he’s describing in his head is exactly what happens in mine.  I was told I was lazy too.  Nobody knew what to do with me until I was diagnosed and they realized I wasn’t being lazy.”  That was that.  Adrian and I have since gotten diagnosis and I’ve communicated with him so much on his symptoms.

Talk about a relationship changer.  Adrian and I have had a bit of a rocky relationship in the past.  He was very defiant and I had a lot of trouble getting him to listen to and respect me.  Now?  He and I are closer than ever.  He tells everyone that he prefers my house to his dad’s.  If you knew our background you would understand just how big a deal that is.  He still loves his dad, but he is being heard, trusted and respected at my house.  His dad rejects the idea of ADD and still tells Adrian he is being lazy.  That’s a whole other issue though.

I never dreamed he and I would have this type of connection.  I’ve got it with his brothers, but couldn’t make it happen with him.  All the resentment, anger and hurt he was holding in from never being truly heard, from hearing all the negativity about himself and from BELIEVING that there was something wrong with him.  Remember those “I don’t know’s”.  They were real!  He TRULY did not know “what was wrong with him”.  He was beating himself up and I was helping him.  Now, with our new-found relationship I constantly express to him that there is nothing “wrong with him”.  He and I (and his brother) simply have an extra hurdle to work through.  We have to learn tools and technique’s that are different than others and that’s ok.

We applied for an alternative high school that he currently attends.  His social life has improved and he has his first love.  Once he got rid of the weight of not knowing, of not understanding, of feeling like a failure and of not being TRULY HEARD-he is doing much better.  He still needs lots of help on overcoming educational hurdles.  But he comes to me now to ask for help because he’s no longer afraid.  He tells me when he makes a mistake and doesn’t do homework.  He’s even tried to come up with plans (I’ve always said-“come up with a plan”) and when his brain couldn’t think through well enough to formulate a plan—he TELLS ME THAT.  I promise you that is huge!

So when you assess yourself in various aspects of your life, really step back and think about this habit.  I truly believed that I was doing everything I could for Adrian.  I involved teachers and counselors.  I offered assistance and punished when I felt it was laziness.  I read (I’m a geek when it comes to the psychology of humans) hundreds of articles from experts on how to correct his issues.  However, it wasn’t until I followed Stephen Covey’s habit to understand that I was able to break through and make a difference.  I am forever grateful to have had the opportunity to finally break through that wall and see what was really going on.  Not only has it made a huge difference for him educationally, but his friendships and personal life have benefited.  More importantly, his relationship with me has been forever changed.  I feel good knowing that I’m finally putting him on the path to success in all aspects of his life.  All I had to do was LISTEN.


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