Seek First to Understand, Then to Be Understood

“Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become angry” (James 1:19). We should be, but we aren’t.

We’d rather be heard than listen. And why not? Why make the effort to be a listener?

Good reasons. First, if you believe the Bible, God commands us to be listeners. Yep. That’s one of God’s commands.

Now, you may say, well, it’s one of his commands, but is it really that important? Here’s something else the Bible says: “Those who consider themselves religious and yet do not keep a tight rein on their tongues deceive themselves, and their religion is worthless” (James 1:26). Ouch!

Second, we have limited knowledge and understanding. If we are going to grow in our knowledge and understanding, we have to listen. If we speak, we only have the resources inside us, but if we listen, we have all the resources of those around us.

Third, listening is the best way to be heard. Everyone wants to be heard and understood. Showing people that we care about their perspective is the best way to ensure that they will also want to hear us. Try it.

On the other side, if we all focus on being heard, then no one will ever be heard. Someone has to get the ball rolling by listening.

Finally, it’s efficient. If we seek to understand people clearly in the beginning, we won’t have to correct all the problems that arise from misunderstanding. Better to take the time to listen in the first place and avoid the problems of misunderstanding altogether.*

The question is, how do we overcome our strong desire to be heard and simply seek to listen to others?

Let me suggest two things that I have found helpful. The first is to write down your thoughts. Writing is similar to discussion. It helps us gain clarity. For me, writing in a journal has made me feel less of a need to talk things out with other people. This frees me up to listen.

This can be especially helpful when you have a strong disagreement with someone. I have heard that Abraham Lincoln recommended the following when you are in a conflict with someone: write a letter and tell them exactly how you feel . . . and then throw that letter in the fire.

The second thing is to share your thoughts with God. People are generally not that interested in your thoughts, but God, amazingly, is! He wants to hear from us more than we want to speak to Him. Why not try sharing your thoughts with God? Besides being a gracious and compassionate God who wants to hear from His children, He has more resources than anybody else to help with our struggles.

Let everyone be swift to hear, slow to speak, slow to wrath. A wonderful aspiration. If we can do it, we will not only bless others, we will be much more likely to be heard.
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*Note: This insight and the title of this article “Seek first to understand, then to be understood” is the 5th habit in Stephen Covey’s The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.

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2 Replies to “Seek First to Understand, Then to Be Understood”

  1. Great, practical meditation on a neglected verse! I esp. liked what you had to say about prayer at the end. People are not always very gracious to hear our thoughts; but God always is. Wow. Also if this helps, this is from a footnote in my forthcoming book on humility (used with permission from New Growth Press). When I preached this once, number 9 got in me trouble with an evangelist in attendance. 🙂

    Here are ten suggestions of how to apply James 1:19:
    1. Be quick to hear about others but slow to speak about oneself. (Proverbs 27:2)
    2. Be quick to learn but slow to show your learning. (1 Corinthians 8:1)
    3. Be quick to hear questions but slow to answer them. (Proverbs 15:28;18:13)
    4. Be quick to consider commitments but slow to make them. (James 5:12)
    5. Be quick to think well of others but slow to flatter them. (Proverbs 28:23)
    6. Be quick to receive advice but slow to give it. (Proverbs 26:12; 29:20)
    7. Be quick to hear criticism but slow to offer it. (Proverbs 11:2;19:11)
    8. Be quick to hear an opponent but slow to argue back. (Romans 12:17–21)
    9. Be quick to witness with deeds but slow with words. (1 Peter 3:1–2, 15; in light of Romans 10:14)
    10. Be quick to listen to God’s Word but slow to talk back. (James 1:21)

  2. Thank you, Chris! That’s extremely helpful. That helps flesh this out. I might use these in some way.

    My only hesitation is on # 5. The reason is that I think we should encourage people. People are slow to say positive things about people. My basic axiom is: “If you like something about someone, say it.” I know this isn’t what you were addressing specifically in # 5, but I just thought I would throw it out there to encourage people to be encouragers!:)

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