Leaders diagnose before they prescribe.

Seek first to understand, then to be understood. ~Stephen R. Covey

Many years ago I was at the doctor for my annual physical exam. She believed that there was an issue with my thyroid. That was followed by six months of blood tests and numerous medication tweaks. She was not pleased with the results so she sent me to a specialist at the regional university hospital and was convinced that I had thyroid cancer. I anxiously went to the specialist. After I was examined by a resident, a fellow, and finally the attending physician I was informed that there was nothing wrong and I was perfectly healthy. Go home. What?!

Throughout this experience there was something my doctor said that was always nagging in the back of my mind. She had mentioned that she had gone through this very same thing. Covey would describe this as “filtering everything through our own paradigms, reading our autobiography into other people’s lives.”

I was reminded of Stephen Covey’s quote: Seek first to understand, then to be understood (habit 5 from 7 Habits of Highly Effective People) this past week. I gave an assignment to a training group to practice conflict resolution. The second step of conflict resolution is to ask questions to understand the other person’s perspective.

While reading their homework I discovered that many had asked questions to determine what the other person had done (i.e., what steps they had taken, what process they had followed), but not why. Understanding process is not the same as understanding perspective. What’s their point of view, what’s their angle, what’s their paradigm, etc. In some cases, I believe they weren’t asking these questions because they assumed they held the same perspective, or they thought the other person’s perspective was inconsequential.

Reading the homework assignments caused me to pause and think about different conflictual situations in which I played a role. Did I really understand the other person’s perspective? In a quick review of Covey’s Habit 5, he provides some challenging questions.

  • Did I understand what was going on inside the other person?
  • Did I get inside the other person’s frame of reference?
  • Did I really understand how they feel?
  • Did I fully, deeply, understand that person, emotionally as well as intellectually?

In the case of my physician, she asked me questions about symptoms. I had none. That didn’t stop her from prescribing. Stephen Covey said, “You don’t have much confidence in someone who doesn’t diagnose before he or she prescribes.” That was true for me, I found a new doctor.

As leaders, it is so easy to read our own autobiography into other people’s lives. Hence, we don’t ask questions to really understand another’s perspective. Imagine how much a leader’s effectiveness could be impacted by fully, deeply, understanding other people, emotionally as well as intellectually?

Leaders diagnose before they prescribe.

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