If you look at all the problems in the world, the solutions nearly all boil down to just one thing: understanding. American educator and author, Stephen Covey, put it best: “We should seek first to understand, and then to be understood.”
This is the best lesson I have learned in my life so far. I don’t think there was a defining moment that led me to this conclusion, but rather several small moments and observations that added up to it.
A good example is a class discussion I had a couple of months ago. We were given a scenario: your mum is dying, and there is only one medicine that can save her. However, the medicine is the only one of its kind. You have offered money to get it, but have been refused. The only way to obtain it is to steal it. Would you steal the medicine for your mother?
The class was divided so that we sat on two sides of the room. Some said they would because their mum’s life was more valuable than the possibility of punishment. Others said they wouldn’t, arguing that their mum wouldn’t have wanted them to commit the immoral act, and that saving a life like that was cheating death.
Some of us were shocked and even offended by the arguments, but nonetheless, we discussed the issue. This was only possible because, despite our disagreements, we were all willing to listen to each other, and genuinely consider the different points of view.
As the debate continued, we were allowed to move to either side of the room whenever we were swayed by the other side’s argument. This had a huge significance because it allowed students to show that they didn’t just try to understand other people’s opinions, they also made the effort to empathise with them. It helped to build open-mindedness and understanding among the students.
This activity made me realise that it is very important to try to understand one another.
Imagine a world where individuals were willing to listen to each other and talk about their feelings and ideas. I am positive we would have a lot fewer problems than we do today. I believe even huge problems like war, poverty and environmental issues could be solved, to a certain extent, if we were willing to hear each other out, no matter how awkward the others’ opinions are.
Another experience I had during my Chinese tutorial class has taught me not only the importance of understanding, but also its prerequisite, impartial listening.
One day, the class was discussing whether the colonial history of Hong Kong was helping the development of our modern culture or not. Again there was a diversity of opinions which allowed an engaging discussion. Some believed that British colonialism watered down our local culture, citing class divides and inequality during the British reign. Others argued that, without British rule, Hong Kong would likely be undeveloped and much poorer than it is now.
The conversation got heated, and soon some people weren’t really listening: they began interrupting each other to get their points across as quickly as possible and taking arguments as personal insults. While the discussion started off as a friendly debate, it ended with no conclusions and fears that more feelings would be hurt. There is nothing wrong about disagreeing with an opinion after you have listened to it and considered it, but it becomes problematic when we do it with prejudice and immediately dismiss it.
To have a constructive discussion, it’s crucial for us to listen while staying calm and rational. Only then can we analyse what everyone is saying with a clear head and judge whether the arguments are sound.
So watch yourself before you make any snap judgments. Ask yourself if you have done your best to listen and understand another person’s argument. Our world would be a much better place if we all start to treat each other with mutual respect.