Stephen Covey’s Single Habit of Highly Effective Peacemakers

In his landmark book, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen R. Covey’s 5th Habit was: Seek First to Understand, Then to Be Understood.

It’s easy to see how helpful and fundamental it is to seek to understand someone accurately before you project, assume and react towards them based on your misunderstanding and because of that, coming to the wrong assumptions/conclusions.

Covey’s son, Stephen M.R. Covey has built upon the legacy of his late father with his own landmark book, The Speed of Trust: The One Thing that Changes Everything. In that book and his subsequent work, he steers the loving, caring spirit of his father towards what the world needs even more than effectiveness and that is trust.

Why is trust so important?

Erik Erikson is considered to be one of the top ten most influential psychologists of the past century. He is perhaps best known for his 8 stages of psychosocial development that form our personality, orientation and filter through which we see, believe and interact with the world.

In the first stage, Trust vs. Mistrust, he rightly points out that if we start out trusting the world, our entire life will be different than if we start out distrusting it.

This was reinforced many years before by Albert Einstein’s quote: “The most important question you can ever ask is if the Universe is a friendly place.” By that he meant, is it a place you should trust or distrust? Believe or fear?

Given all the above, how do we connect the dots and make peace between countries and people who distrust us and who we distrust.

Seeking first to understand is a great start, however reaching out with that request may not cause the other side to be forthcoming with us if they’re coming from distrust.

There is however one tweak that could make such an olive branch offering more effective in reaching out to a country or people that we perceive and that perceives us to be enemies.

Instead of asking them what is important for us to understand about them, ask them: “What are things that you believe we don’t understand, refuse to understand and will never understand about you?”

By approaching it that way, we are involving them in a process called mediated catharsis. In other words, we are validating (which is not the same as agreeing with) their having negative thoughts, feelings and assumptions towards us. And by inviting them to express those, we enable them to get things off their chest that currently stand as a roadblock between them and us.

I did a version of that recently in one day, six hour presentation in Moscow to 400+ CEOs and members of the Russian Federation. And what caused them to lower their guards and let me in was when early in my presentation I said: “I was warned by Americans to not smile in Russia, because Russians don’t smile. Furthermore they don’t trust Americans who smile too quickly because we’re not yet friends and it only feels like we’re planning some kind of manipulation to exploit you.”

“What I realized that I didn’t understand about you is that the reason you don’t smile at people like me is because I haven’t yet earned your trust. However, when I do earn your trust by not taking advantage of you in any way, not trying to convince you of anything, not selling you anything — because I have already been well paid for this — and not talking at or down to you, but instead talking with you… and furthermore when I gain your confidence and appreciation by telling you things that you can do now that will immediately improve your lives, we’re not only going to smile at each other, we are going to drink vodka, you are going to drink me under the table and three of you will carry me back to my room at the Metropol.”

By demonstrating that I understood what they never thought I’d understand about them, i.e. that they weren’t angry at me, they were weary of me because of what foreigners have done to Russia for centuries, it began a six hour love affair between them and me.

What would happen to our relationships with Russia, China and even North Korea if we asked each of them to tell us what they believe we don’t understand about them, refuse to understand about them and will never understand about them?

I don’t see any downside to that. Do you?

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