Seek to Understand

Seek to Understand

I’m making just one New Year’s Resolution this year.

Let me first acknowledge, however, that I’m not big on making New Year’s Resolutions.

It’s not that I have no room for improvement; any list of my failings would exceed the space available in this blog.

Nor is it that I don’t like to make commitments. I do it all the time. And when I do it, I do it in a big way.

That’s the problem.

I decide to improve my approach to teaching a particular class, and instead of refinements, I do wholesale redevelopment. I change the structure, the assignments, the instructional methodology, the readings, even my policies about attendance and late assignments. The result, however, is not a revolution in education, but a semester-long pitched battle between my old teacher self and my new instructional model. Because, while I have changed the structure, I haven’t changed the instructor.

I don’t think I’m unique in this regard.

Often, reforms in the public sector and in private business founder on the rocks of unreformed individuals. I think about the multitude of budgeting reforms, like zero-based budgeting and performance budgeting, that were supposed to change the way public and private institutions and organizations not only manage money, but get their work done. There’s even a movement called Beyond Budgeting that advocates reforms that toss aside the very idea of budgeting as a central feature of management.

But if the decision makers in the system don’t change how they think about money and management, these reforms are doomed to failure. After a few years, all the players figure out the new “game,” and find ways to “play” so that they can keep doing what they’ve always done.

In light of my own personal history and our collective experience with reforms, resolving to change anything seems risky. But I am making one resolution the centerpiece of this New Year, in spite of the risks.

Seek to understand

Note that I did not say, “seek to be understood.” Nor did I focus on some outcome that might result from understanding.

Just . . . seek to understand.

When we seek to understand another, we put ourselves in the role of the student, or the interested observer. We aren’t in charge.

When we seek to understand, we are compelled to set aside our assumptions in order to allow the pieces of another person’s puzzle to speak to us. We have to listen, and watch, and do so with an open mind . . . perhaps even an open heart.

In the world of practical politics, when we seek to understand, we are denied all the rhetorical weapons of assault that we see used so often to defend egos and political postures

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. . . often in indefensible ways. Seeking to understand means leaving the drawbridge down, letting the other in, spending time with no other purpose than to learn to appreciate the world the way someone else sees it.

Understanding need not be about “liking” or approving. We may come to understand, and be horrified by what we have learned.

But there’s a good chance that, in most cases, we will find some reason to respect the other.

And we’ll find it much harder, next time, to dismiss them out of hand. Instead, we’ll be inclined to engage them, to take their perspective into account, because we understand their perspective.

If we do all that, perhaps, just perhaps, this year will see more fruitful dialogues and more productive engagement with the real problems our communities and our nation face.