Seeking First to Understand

Erin Gruwell faced quite a storm in her first year teaching at Woodrow Wilson High School in Long Beach, California.

Played by Hilary Swank in the movie Freedom Writers, Gruwell desperately tried to gain control of her classroom and get her students to learn the language arts curriculum.

But disrespect from students and a lack of support from coworkers and administrators left her struggling to find answers.

Just like Erin Gruwell, we may face similar storms in our relationships with our students, so here is the challenge we can use to help us face this frustration:

Describe ONE relationship currently causing you an internal struggle. Summon the courage to reach out to the person in the relationship and open up communication with them to gain new wisdom and understanding.

This challenge comes from our fundamental of success of Rising Above.

The Mindset of Seeking First to Understand

In the movie, a tipping point occurs when Gruwell distributes a composition notebook to each student and gives them the opportunity to write about anything they want.

She provides the option to leave the journals in a locked cabinet if the students want her to read their entries, but she promises not to discuss their contents with anyone. Erin Gruwell used a tool that we can utilize with our students as well when we are facing an internal struggle over how to reach someone we are trying to help.

We can seek first to understand, and then to be understood.

Providing students with the opportunity to journal about their lives is just one example of this tool.

In The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey described how the tool of seeking first to understand can help us when we communicate with someone involved in a relationship that is causing us an internal struggle. We need to make sure when we use the tool of seeking first to understand we have the proper mindset.

It’s not the mindset we are trying to prove the other person is wrong and we are right.

It’s not the mindset we are going to dismiss everything the other person has to say because they are not worthy enough for us to listen to them.

It’s not the mindset the only way the relationship is going to improve is for the other person to change.

Seeking first to understand and then to be understood can be applied to any type of relationship with a variety of different people, but it is definitely valuable for communicating with our students.

Open Mind and Open Heart

When we enter a conversation with an agenda or an axe to grind, then not only is communication hampered, but we limit our opportunities to learn and grow. This doesn’t mean we are conceding the other person is right. It doesn’t mean we are validating their position.

However, we are validating the idea each of us is writing our own story. Each of us has a unique lens and perspective through which we see the world based on our experiences. And even if the other person is absolutely dead wrong, we can still learn something about them…or something about ourselves.

Seeking first to understand requires us to put aside our ego and enter with an open mind and an open heart.

Sometimes this will lead to improved communication and maybe a compromise or resolution of a situation which caused us internal struggle. But seeking first to understand and then to be understood does not guarantee a positive result…at least not in interpersonal terms.

At the same time, it can guarantee a positive result in intrapersonal terms (within ourselves). Because this mindset allows us to learn, grow, and change into a better version of ourselves. On the surface, this may appear not to be a win in our relationship with the other person, but it very well could be when they realize we treated them with respect and tried to understand them, rather than simply pushing our own agenda.

Remember, we can’t change other people. But the way we live our lives can inspire them to change.

Seeking first to understand is a great tool to help us live a life that is worthy to inspire change.

Centered on Others

So how about you?

Can you describe ONE relationship currently causing you an internal struggle? Can you summon the courage to reach out to the person in the relationship and open up communication with them to gain new wisdom and understanding?

We have to Rise Above our own selfish nature and being focused on what we want and what we think we deserve.

This challenge, and the tool of seeking first to understand, is a great example of how writing our own story is not self-centered. It’s other-centered. As teachers and coaches, it is centered on helping our students and athletes. It is about using our mindset and harnessing our power of choice to take action which will benefit others.

Seeking first to understand is a leadership skill we can utilize to grow stronger relationships with our students and create a legacy of impact one day at a time.

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