Seek To Understand Then To Be Understood

(I’m officially a Competent Communicator. Wow, what a journey after one year and 9 months. I still have a long way to go. This is the speech that marked the first flag in my long course of journey.)

Seek first to understand then to be understood.

My fellow Toastmasters, ladies and gentlemen,

I admit. These words, as beautiful as they may sound to ears, are easier said than done.

Let’s take a look at our manuals in page two. It’s written with ‘The Mission of Toastmasters International’. Now, let’s look at the second paragraph: ‘TI helps men and women learn the arts of speaking, listening and thinking’. If we look at Toastmasters club’s mission, it’s written somewhere in the middle: ‘to develop oral communication and leadership skills’. From my understanding, this means that listening is a very important part in oral communication and leadership skills. To be able to communicate effectively, we must be able to listen effectively.

Now, let us ponder. How many times have we started talking or giving opinions before the other persons finish their talks? How many times have we started to tell people our points when we should in fact listen and understand what others are trying to tell us? How many times have we judged people without first hearing their true story?

When I first joined Toastmasters, can anybody guess what my greatest fear was? I feared I won’t be able to survive the culture. I came from a town where majority of the population is Malay. I’ve been in two boarding schools – both all Malay. I have only one Chinese and one Indian friend for 17 years of my life until I went to UTM. Seriously. The first few months in Toastmasters, I was still considering quitting. Being in Toastmasters was definitely an out-of-comfort-zone experience for me, even without the projects, manuals and contests. I don’t know how to communicate my wants because I’m not sure whether you’ll understand. But I kept reminding myself, apart from ‘aal iz well’, I must seek first to understand then to be understood. I must first listen before I seek to be heard. So I listen carefully to conversations and people’s stories to get myself familiar with Toastmasters. After a few months, I’ve able to understand the culture by my listening activity. But this is listening in a simple view.

I think it is not exaggerating to say that good listening skills can contribute for a better mankind. How many of you have ever watched the movie Invictus? This movie records the amazing moments when Nelson Mandela was newly elected as the president of South Africa. The black people were protesting against the national rugby team, Springbrocks, because to them, the white people brought in rugby, so the Springbrocks symbolized apartheid. They want to replace the team with a brand new one, complete with a new name, a new color and a new emblem. But Mandela said, “We had prevailed against the Africana. All of us. But now the Africana is no longer our enemy. They are now our fellow South Africans, our partners in democracy and they treasure Springbrocks rugby. If we take that away, we lose them. We prove that we are what they fear we would be. We have to be better than that. We have to surprise them with compassion, restring and generosity.” Mandela’s splendid listening skill is impressive. To be able to do this after long years imprisoned by the same people who he was defending at that time requires high level of empathy. Empathy is the very essence of effective listening skills.

To be able to listen emphatically, we must be able to open up ourselves to be influenced. This is risky because it takes a great deal of security to go into deep listening. But this is the only way – in order to have influence on others, we must let ourselves be influenced by them. Let me tell you a story about my mother and I. Before that, let me state a fact. Even though I’m a girl, I don’t get most of woman emotion or behavior like why women love shopping, why do women need plenty of shoes and why can’t women decide on blue or red after a few hours. So my relationship with my mom didn’t go very smoothly. But, a few years back when I came across the popular book “Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus” I stumbled upon many ah-ha moments throughout my reading.

One day, my mother said, “You never helped me clean up the house.” Before that, when she said this, I could feel anger filling up my lungs but that time, I simply listened to her while she kept lamenting about her tiring day. After she finished, I gave her a hug and said, “Kesian mak”. She simply said, “Hmm…” and proceeding to tell me about some funny things happening at her office. Then I thought, “Aik? It was that simple. How can I not know about this before?” When I do this, my mother was influenced by my behavior, which I hugged her, but actually, before that, I was influenced by her stories. My point of view had been changed because I listen without judging her, without making assumption about her feelings. I saw her hardships differently than before.

One of the greatest experiences I had related to listening is a few years back. One day, my brother was down because of his exam results so he poured out his feelings to me. While he was talking, I kept saying “I understand. I understand.” Suddenly in the middle of talking, he couldn’t contain his emotion and said, “Stop saying ‘I understand. I understand.” No, you don’t understand. You were always the top scorer. You are good in curriculum. How can you understand me being a fail student? Do you understand the feeling of being disapproved by mom and dad? No, you don’t.” I was stunt and silent. He’s right. I don’t understand. I don’t even have the right to say I understand because that’s like belittling his feeling. But later, I realized, he’s correct that I don’t understand his feelings. But I do understand the feeling of trying so hard but not succeeding. I do understand the feeling of trying so hard to make people validate me. These are the actual feelings that I must relate when he told me his story. This incident has taught me a great lesson on empathy and listening.

My fellow Toastmasters,

If listening is easy, there won’t be any wars in the world. If listening is easy, divorce rates won’t keep increasing around the world. We are different. This is what makes listening skills a valuable commodity in a person and the essence of oral communication. The good news is we can all learn and improve our listening skills. Remember. Seek first to understand then to be understood.


Author: Ajan

An aspiring speaker & writer who believes in cakes, cats and compounding return.

One thought on “Seek To Understand Then To Be Understood”

  1. ala… english mantap2 pula yang aku nak komen ni.. haisy.. tapi.. ada aku kesah?

    aku buka blog ko, sebab rasa kot-kot ada ko nak share pasal malam tadi.. hehehe.. yeah! ada! speech ko 😛 aku yang nk buat post kat blog tak buat2 lagi kan.. hehehe..

    btw, my comment.. ko sangat matematik! (ntah hape2)

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