2020 is more than halfway over and the virtual AFCPE Symposium is right around the corner. To say this has been an interesting year would be an understatement. COVID-19; cancellation or changes to the way we do school, work, sports, and shopping; social unrest following the death of George Floyd; natural disasters; political bargaining with America’s future, and the list could go on.

If someone made a word cloud of the most common words used to describe 2020 it would probably be a fairly gloomy cloud.

In the midst of all of this I have been reflecting a lot on my various roles – husband, father, teacher, leader, AFCPE President, business owner, writer, etc. and how I can be more effective in these roles. I am a big fan of personal development books – on my desk in front of me are the books Influence and Pre-Suasion by Robert Cialdini, Atomic Habits by James Clear, and You’re Not Listening by Kate Murphy. However, I have felt compelled recently to go back to the book that I see as foundational for almost all other personal development books, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People by Dr. Stephen R. Covey. 

I have been especially aware of Habit 5 recently: Seek first to understand, then to be understood. Dr. Covey said, “If I were to summarize in one sentence the single most important principle I have learned in the field of interpersonal relations, it would be this: Seek first to understand, then to be understood.”

With all of Dr. Covey’s decades of research in the field of interpersonal relations, nothing else was more important than seeking to truly understand another person’s point of view before sharing your point of view.

We see the opposite of this all the time on social media – someone will post, for example, about wearing or not wearing a mask, and without seeking to truly understand their point of view, attacks start flying back and forth in the comments from both sides. No one is seeking to understand, but they want to make sure they are understood.

I was impressed a few years back by Megan Phelps-Roper’s TED talk, titled “I grew up in the Westboro Baptist Church. Here’s why I left.” Westboro Baptist Church was founded by Megan’s grandfather, and is known for protesting against members of the LGBT community, Catholics, Jews, the military and others. Megan has pictures of herself as a 5-year old holding up signs that said, “Gays are worthy of death.” 

Megan started using Twitter as a way to defend the church and her beliefs, but something happened along the way. People started asking her questions (seeking first to understand) then she responded by asking them questions (then be understood). Megan said that, “asking questions…signals to someone they’re being heard. When my friends on Twitter stopped accusing and started asking questions, I almost automatically mirrored them. Their questions gave me room to speak, but they also gave me permission to ask them questions and truly hear their responses.” Slowly Megan’s beliefs started to shift as a result of these conversations until she eventually left her church and her family. 

This shift for Megan would not have happened if people had just yelled at her or ridiculed her (people tried that; it just reinforced her beliefs). It was only by others being genuinely interested in her, and seeking to understand her, that she was able to see the harm her beliefs were causing. 

Megan gives four recommendations for having a conversation about difficult topics (such as masks, or Black Lives Matter, or kneeling for the national anthem, or defunding the police, or protesting, or lockdowns, etc.):

  1. Don’t assume bad intent
  2. Ask questions
  3. Stay calm
  4. Make the argument

Megan’s steps are similar to Dr. Covey’s, with the reminder to not assume bad intent and to stay calm. I would encourage you and I to seek to follow these steps next time we have an encounter with someone we initially seem to disagree with. We may have more in common than we initially thought.

While 2020 may look like a gloomy cloud, AFCPE members can build something meaningful and intentional from all of this. The work we do is so important, and the way we do our work is important as well. We can be the first ones to truly listen – in our families, with our clients, with our friends, and on social media. Listen to the struggles people are having and respond with empathy and kindness. 

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