Seek First to Understand, Then to be Understood

Text: Katharine Tengtio
Photography: Katharine Tengtio and Renalda Ludvika

Wise words from my father.

Communication is the most important skill in life. No matter the amount of intelligence or talent a person has, it is invaluable unless one can communicate it. The importance of communication is obvious today- globalisation is a process of increased and immediate communication with people worldwide. Our world has changed drastically in the past decades because we have improved our means of communication.

But have we really? Growing up in our generation we have learned to read and write, to talk and type, to text and bbm. We have the television, the radio, the internet, cell phones, all accessible for instant communication. We have been able to travel the world in a matter of hours and make friends with people from different cultures and backgrounds who we may not have ever met without modern technology. We have published magazines and newspapers, internet blogs, public speakers and lectures.

No Celebration of International Women’s Day

We can even take classes on public speaking and writing skills. We have so much opportunity to communicate- but how effective is it all? Are we really listening?

Communication is useless unless we speak AND listen. However most people only speak with intent to reply. We tend to focus on getting our own opinions out before we wait to consider others. We all can be guilty of selective hearing, where we listen half-heartedly to what the other person is saying while we are focusing on our own thoughts in our minds. We listen autobiographically, filtering in everything we hear based on our own perceptions and our own personal experiences. Our responses are determined by our own personal opinions. Famous author Robert Covey classified the ways we respond into four different ways:

  • Evaluating- you judge and either agree or disagree
  • Probing- you ask questions from your own frame of reference
  • Advising- you give counsel, advice, and solutions to problems
  • Interpreting- you analyze others’ motives and behaviours based on your own personal experiences
Comm – Renalda Ludvika

Often in our responses we can be quick to judge, and rarely do we stop and ask ourselves, ‘Why does this person think this way?’, ‘What brought this person to this situation?’, ‘Why is he/she the way he/she is?’ It is important to be aware of who and how we judge because we never know the circumstances that brought a person to who they are today. It is easy to scrutinize and criticize a person because they do not meet up to your standards or do not share the same values. But by criticizing someone you do not understand, you push that person away and he/she may never understand you either. To listen empathetically is rare, but vital if we are to truly understand each other. We must focus on understanding where the other person is coming from before we can form any judgement or advice.

On the international scale, communication is frighteningly unclear. Messages and actions between diplomats and politicians are commonly misunderstood and misinterpreted. You can apply the four ways of response to the way international actors react as well. We either agree or disagree with the war in Iraq. We ask questions about the military build up in Venezuela because it is a potential threat to our own security. We advise Iran how they should control their population and run their elections. We analyze and interpret North Korea’s nuclear weapon actions.

No matter how many books we read or how many advisors we consult, we can never understand the opposition unless we take the time to truly listen and see where they are coming from. How many of our politicians have lived amongst people of a different culture or nationality? How many of us have ever lived out of our native country for more than a few months? It is important that we start to understand what ‘understanding’ really means.

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It doesn’t just mean going to a foreign country and seeing all the tourist sites, neither does it mean volunteering to help homeless people for a week, and neither does it mean partying with foreigners for a few nights out. Understanding someone is to see that person’s world through their eyes, to really immerse yourself into their life and culture, to listen. We cannot even begin to give advice to those who we do not understand. We will never be able to help each other if we do not take the time to listen and see with open ears, eyes, and mind.

A growing trend is studying abroad as an exchange student. I cannot stress enough how important this is for our generation to follow and embrace. By living with a different family in a different environment will show us how others live and how others see the world. This is a way to truly communicate and understand each other. The more we expose ourselves to different ideas and cultures the more we can learn to understand each other, communicate with each other, and ultimately work amongst and together with each other for future prospects of peace.

Katharine Tengtio is half-American and half-Filipina. She is currently studying International Relations and Spanish at the University of St Andrews, in Scotland.