Here at Christian Investors Financial (CIF), we have come up with a document called the “Relational Roadmap,” which outlines 12 commitments our team has made in regard to communication, relationships and how we intend to work together. I wrote a series of commentaries on each individual commitment and thought one, in particular, would be “food for thought” as a blog post. It’s reproduced below – first with the commitment in bold italic, then following with my commentary. I hope you find it useful!

We will commit first to making certain we understand the perspectives, assumptions and opinions of others – and then to making certain that our perspectives, assumptions, and opinions are understood by others.

Around the turn of the century, a wealthy but unsophisticated oil tycoon from Texas made his first trip to Europe on a ship. The first night at dinner, he found himself seated with a stranger, a Frenchman, who dutifully nodded and said, “Bon appetit.” Thinking the man was introducing himself, he replied, “Barnhouse.”

For several days, the ritual was repeated. The Frenchman would nod and say, “Bon appetit.” The Texan would smile and reply, “Barnhouse” a little louder and more distinctly than the time before.

One afternoon, Mr. Barnhouse mentioned it to another passenger who set the oil baron straight. “You’ve got it all wrong. He wasn’t introducing himself. ‘Bon appetit’ is the French way of telling you to enjoy your meal.” 

Needless to say, Barnhouse was terribly embarrassed and determined to make things right. At dinner that evening, the Texan came in, nodded at his friend and said, “Bon appetit.”

The Frenchman rose and answered, “Barnhouse.”

On a more serious note, St. Francis of Assisi’s famous “Prayer of St. Francis” says the following:

O Divine Master,
grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled, as to console;
to be understood, as to understand;
to be loved, as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive.
It is in pardoning that we are pardoned,
and it is in dying that we are born to Eternal Life.

Drawn from a humorous story or from a serious prayer like the one above, the principle of “seek first to understand, then to be understood” is the same. The Bible, in the book of Proverbs, offered identical advice ages before St. Francis penned his prayer. In Proverbs 18:13 we read, “He who answers before listening – that is his folly and his shame.” Earlier in this same chapter there is a pointed evaluation of those who would rather talk than listen: “A fool finds no pleasure in understanding but delights in airing his own opinions” (18:2). In the New Testament, James 1:19 says “Let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, and slow to anger:”  

Patrick Lencioni, the author of The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, has a book titled The Advantage, where he describes two kinds of communication. The first is advocacy, where a person states his/her case or makes his/her point (“I think this” or “I recommend we do that”). The second, which Lencioni says is rarer and more important, is inquiry, where a person asks questions, often to seek clarity about another ’s statement of advocacy (“Why do you think that?”or “What aspect are you referring to?” or “How certain are you of this and how strongly do you feel about it?”). He’s making the same point about seeking to understand before seeking to be understood, and I think he’s right.

Lencioni also talks about what he calls the “Fundamental Attribution Error.” It sounds complicated but is really pretty simple. At the heart of it is the tendency of human beings to attribute negative or frustrating behaviors of colleagues to their intentions and poor attitudes, while attributing their own negative or frustrating behaviors to circumstances or environmental factors. As an example, if I am at a local store and see a dad scowling, yelling, and wagging his finger at his young son, I might assume the dad has an anger problem and probably needs counseling. However, if I behave toward my son the same way, I’m more likely to conclude that my behavior is caused by my son’s behavior, or to excuse it due to the events of the morning that make it a “bad day.” (And yes, if you’re wondering, that is a true story and DID happen to me at a local store some time ago. Ouch.).  

So, what am I to do?  Here are a couple of things I think apply to me:

  • First, seek to have “learning” conversations, using both inquiry and advocacy:  
    • Ask questions of others, seeking to understand as much as possible about who that person is and why they might be saying or doing the things they are. Seek clarification, perhaps re-stating how I heard the other person’s words to them and asking if I understand them correctly.Seek to share as much as I can about myself, who I am, and why I am saying or doing the things I am.
    • Realize that, in most interactions, I need to understand both “the facts,” the emotions and “behind the scenes” thinking of the person sharing them.
    • Doesn’t mean I need to shy away from using advocacy – it’s completely appropriate and necessary if we are going to decide anything and move forward. However, my statements of advocacy will be much more “on target” and better received if I use “inquiry” along the way.
  • Second, believe and assume the best in others. If something feels out of place or uncomfortable, don’t fall into the trap of the “Fundamental Attribution Error,” thinking the other person has a bad attitude or is intentionally trying to hurt me or cause frustration. I think the more insight and empathy I have (see the first bullet point above), the more trust and goodwill I can have, allowing for swifter resolution of issues or difficulties. It’s too easy for me to assume the worst and not the best about others – do you do that, too?  That’s something I am asking the Holy Spirit to help me with these days.

What do you think?

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