Habit #5 – Seek First to Understand, Then to Be Understood


Stephen Covey defines this habit as listening to a person with genuine empathy. which in turn invites them to listen with empathy to you. If this sounds vaguely familiar, it should. Whether it’s a parent who told you that “God gave you two ears and one mouth, so you can listen twice as much as you speak”, “If you can’t be nice, then be quiet”, or the classic Golden Rule of “Treat others as you’d have them treat you”, each saying is focusing on the importance of those around us. When it comes to the workplace, sometimes it doesn’t quite work out with a big group hug as you each bawl your eyes out while baring your souls to one another. In fact, I can’t think of a single workplace I’ve seen where that was the case, though I have worked on some teams who genuinely cared about one another.

Most often, you’ll see a bit more conflict. In The Last Dance, there is a story about the 1995-96 training camp where Michael Jordan is basically bullying Steve Kerr on the court. Jordan’s thought is that he needs to know how tough this kid is, and at one point, Jordan fouls Kerr – hard. By the point, Kerr had had enough, and hits Jordan in the chest. Jordan counters by punching Kerr right in the face, which ends his day of practice. After the incident, Jordan realized he had stepped over the line and called Kerr to apologize. Without Kerr saying anything, Jordan had understood that this kid was tough enough to play with him, and wasn’t going to back down from anyone. Kerr, in turn, realized that here was a teammate who was going to demand his very best, every night. He understood that Jordan was driven to win, always. Once they understood each other, respect grew, and the team became stronger.

Covey breaks this habit down into three Greek words, and while generally it’s taught as related to a single individual in the relationship, I think the above showcases it nicely when you look at how this incident formed the basis for a winning relationship between these two players.

Ethos (Character) – In a nutshell, it’s the individual’s credibility. At the time of the above incident, Michael Jordan was widely regarded as the best basketball player in the world. Kerr, on the other hand, was on his fourth team. It was only by standing up to Jordan that he gained credibility in Jordan’s eyes.

Pathos (Emotion/Empathy) – Pathos involves putting yourself into someone else’s shoes (figuratively!) and trying to understand things from their side. Kerr, while angry at Jordan, understood that Jordan needed to win – and to do that in a team game, he had to drive everyone else as hard as he drove himself. Jordan, on the other hand, realized after the incident that “I just beat up the littlest guy on the (expletive) court,” Jordan said. “I feel this small.”

Logos (Logic) – This is the reason behind what people are doing or saying. Jordan understood that Kerr hit him because he wouldn’t be bullied. Kerr, in turn, understood that Jordan wasn’t trying to beat him down – he was trying to give Kerr the toughness to pull himself up. As a result, both gained the respect of the other in a way that hadn’t occurred before. Note the conversation between the two at 19 seconds into the clip. Jordan, the widely believed best player in the world, is telling the guy he punched that he should look for the ball to take the last shot – the game winning shot to end the season and win it all. It’s one thing to trust someone when you have little to no options, but it’s a completely different thing to tell someone you are going to trust them, and then actually do it.

I took a few years of ROTC, and one of the key things my commander drilled into us about leadership was that it was important to walk into a new command and observe its operation and its people before making decisions. His message? Understand first, then command (be understood) second. This is echoed nicely in Proverbs 18:13 – “To answer before listening – that is folly and shame.”

Now that you’ve gotten the rah-rah team portion of the article out of the way, here’s the great news – this process applies equally well to data! Several years ago I was asked by a company as to how I would come in and fix their data issues. Not knowing what their issues were, I began asking questions. Perplexed, several panel members tried to correct my course. Would I build them a data warehouse? An ODS? A data lake? What about cloud technologies vs. on premises, what would I do for their company in that area? I was a bit taken aback, and responded in the only way I knew how, something to the effect of, “I cannot give you an answer on the solution until I understand the problem any more than I can tell you what tools I need to build something if I don’t know its purpose. Yes, I can hammer a nail with a screwdriver and I can drive in a screw with a hammer, but the best jobs are done by understanding the best tools to resolve the exact problems at hand.” I walked out of there knowing that they were not ready for the help I could provide, as they too had yet to effectively identify their issues. Data is no different than people in this case. Until you understand the data, then you cannot effectively solve its problems. Too often I see data workers who are simply order takers, coding exactly to the specs given. When the results don’t match what the business intended, those same workers take the blame and feel that no one understands the difficulties of their jobs – and often they are correct. However, had they taken the time to ask questions of the business, understanding the intent of the ask first, then most often, they would be able to resolve the business’ need with a much simpler and elegant solution. Only by understanding the purpose of the product they are developing can data workers effectively have the results of their work be understood, and accepted, by the end users in the business who are consuming the data. If you take the time to ask the right questions and listen to the answers, then you’ll never fail to deliver the best solution available.

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