Seek To Understand

Most of life is not as you expect. 

A way to find out how different  is to study American author and philosopher Eric Hoffer.

He died more than 30 years ago but his thoughts still ring true.  Possibly because they are fundamental truths.

  • How much easier is self-sacrifice than self-realization.
  • In every passionate pursuit, the pursuit counts more than the object pursued.
  • The less satisfaction we derive from being ourselves, the greater is our desire to be like others.
  • To become different from what we are, we must have some awareness of what we are.

Hoffer worked as a longshoreman until he retired at 65.  Not exactly the usual philosopher path. His views on the world arise from fundamental insight into the human condition.  The good news is that he writes few words to express complex ideas.

That, of course, leads to a problem and it is clear from another of his aphorisms.

“It is not at all simple
to understand the simple.”

Consider your clients.  What you have simplified to the point of “nothing could be easier” may be difficult to understand.  Why?  Because people tend to replace complicated ideas with shortcuts,  and thus erase parts of the subject matter in order to make it simple.  Simple words and simple structures have meaning, often precise meaning, but they are not ideas fully shared by everyone.

If you ask an accountant what depreciation is, you will get an answer immensely different from what you will get from a car salesman.

Be very cautious using stylized words in reports to people who do not share the complexity of your education and experience.  They will almost certainly misunderstand them, or use them in ways that are not your ways.  Sometimes they do not even hear the words correctly.

A patient with a serious terminal cancer asked his doctor, “What do you mean by germinal?”

Developing and implementing a financial plan is not an event.  It is a process.  It will work when you discover the client’s understanding and use their vocabulary and philosophy.  Over the length of the process, you can come to a common ground where the language and ideas are shared.

Stephen Covey nailed it in “7 Habits of Highly Effective People.”  Habit 5:  Seek First to Understand, Then to Be Understood

I think it would be more clear for many of us if “Then” became “Then and Only Then, Seek to be Understood.”

We must listen and act on what we hear, without introducing our personal understanding.  At the beginning, our understanding is irrelevant.

You can help someone else move their understanding by educating them. You cannot do so by telling them.

Don Shaughnessy is a retired partner in an international public accounting firm and is presently with The Protectors Group, a large personal insurance, employee benefits and investment agency in Peterborough Ontario. Contact:  

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