Why it’s essential for leaders to “seek first to understand”

Dennis Sparks

“Seek first to understand” was for me the most memorable phrase in Stephen Covey’s book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.

When leaders “seek first to understand, then to be understood,” the result, Covey says, is “empathic communication.”

Over time my appreciation of this habit deepened and broadened into additional areas.

Here are a few uses to which I have applied the phrase, including the one Covey proposed:

1. Seek first to understand the perspectives of others, including their assumptions, so thoroughly that they feel fully heard and understood, even as they recognize that we don’t necessarily share their point of view. I learned that expressing a sincere interest and listening carefully deepens understanding and strengthens relationships.

2. Seek first to acquire a thorough understanding of a situation before acting. I learned that “Ready, fire, aim” was generally not the best way to react to situations that required a slower, more thoughtful response.

3. Seek first to understand the nature and root causes of problems. I learned that leaders too often squandered teachers’ time, energy, and goodwill trying to solve poorly-formulated problems.

4. Seek first to understand the range of solutions available to address a problem, including the evidence that supports them. I learned that moving too quickly into action often exacerbates rather than solves problems.

Formula for success: A thorough understanding of the views of others + a deep understanding of the situation/problem and possible solutions + an action orientation = strong relationships and the achievement of goals.

Question: What is missing from my list (or my formula)—in what other ways is it important for principals and teacher leaders to seek first to understand?


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