“Seek first to understand, then to be understood.”
It’s one of the 7 Habits of Highly Successful People, from the classic book by Steven R. Covey. I see the importance of that rule of thumb every day in my professional life. So often when we are engaged in debate with co-workers we so desperately want to get our point across that we can’t wait for the other person to JUST FINISH TALKING ALREADY so we can TELL THEM WHAT THEY NEED TO HEAR.
What Dr. Covey’s coaching tells us is that this is a very dangerous trap to fall into. It’s poison to professional and personal relationships, and behaving this way is a critical barrier to accomplishing anything of real significance in business, marriage, or any other setting where collaboration is needed. To be successful in these situations, it’s critical for each party to focus first on understanding the point of view of the other. This doesn’t in any way require agreement with that point of view, just a thorough understanding of it. Only then can true progress be made.
Richard Holbrooke and George Mitchell are two names recently in the news who must understand this principle more than any two Americans on the planet. In their line of work, behaving in the way described above does not just kill a business deal or threaten a marriage. In their line of work, allowing a breakdown means thousands, perhaps millions, of citizens on both sides of an armed conflict may die.
Richard Holbrooke is a professional diplomat who was recently named by President Obama to be the Special Representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan. He had previously served in as the United States Ambassador to the UN, but arguably his greatest achievement was negotiating a peace agreement in Bosnia which culminated in the signing of the Dayton Peace Accords in 1995 ending the Bosnian War. This ended the war that saw the introduction of the term “ethnic cleansing” into contemporary vernacular, and which saw the rape and murder of between 20,000 and 50,000 people between 1992 and 1995 according to estimates (see Wikipedia note).
George Mitchell is a former Majority Leader in the United States Senate, who was also recently tapped by President Obama to be a special envoy to the Middle East. In a diplomatic context he is most well-known for leading the peace negotiations in Northern Ireland that led to the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998. That agreement established a functional power-sharing agreement in Northern Ireland as well as the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission. Prior to the Good Friday Agreement, the civil war between Catholic and Protestant factions in Northern Ireland had led to the deaths of more than 3,100 people through bombings and other violence that had terrorized Irish and British alike from 1968 to 1994. Recently, a police officer and two soliders were killed in Northern Ireland, allegedly by a splinter group of the Irish Republican Army (IRA), but that action was quickly condemned by Gerry Adams, the president of Sinn Fein, the political arm of the IRA that is a party to the power-sharing agreement. The violence is not expected to continue, a sign of the durability of the agreement signed more than 10 years ago.
Ambassador Holbrooke and Senator Mitchell are outstanding examples of two Americans who have given their professional lives to the cause of advancing diplomacy for the sake of lasting peace in areas of conflict. It takes a very specific and valuable skillset to be able to broker agreements of this importance and sensitivity. I wish the two of them the best of success in their new callings on behalf of the new administration. Their time and talents are certainly needed.
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