When Steven Covey said “seek first to understand, then to be understood,” I used to think he meant cognitively and intellectually. But that’s not all there is to it. It goes deeper.
I envision our cognitive, logical, thinking mind as something that sits on top of our heart, the feeling, emotional body. And when you go even deeper, you get into your subconscious and then to your physical body. Frankly, all the thoughts we have, all the hard work we do thinking, trying to figure it out, trying to make sense — it’s all fluff.
As the center of our being, our heart feels emotions, and in that feeling lies the quality of our experience. Good or bad experience depends on how it feels. But the conventional notion of any particular feeling being positive or negative is misleading. A game may be full of frustration but we keep desiring it. A horror movie may be full of gross, disgusting feeling yet some of us revel in it.
It seems that our definition of positive or negative experiences depend not on what kind of emotions we experience, but on how freely we felt them. If we are able to feel something in an unabashed, unrestrained manner, we come out of it feeling engaged and engrossed. On the other hand, if we go through it with resistance, thinking “I shouldn’t have to feel this way” then we think of it as undesirable.
Now, we being a social animal, we get even better experience when we share the experience with something outside of ourselves. When we know that someone or some thing experiencing the same feeling that you are, the sense of connection amplifies whatever the power that emotion has on you. It can make good experiences great and poor experiences more tolerable.
That’s why kids want to play with other kids. Or show the grownups what they’ve done. They are looking for the emotional connection. To share the experience.
And that’s also why we listen to music. This aurally driven experience has a way to bypass the thinking body and cuts straight to the heart. It’s certainly possible to cognitively engage (as in, “hey, here’s that distorted riff coming… and there the backing vocals added harmony…”) but really, when you’re engaged in music you’re enjoying the sensation of listening to those sounds. Because you perceive that this song and you are sharing the same feeling, it becomes a desirable experience, even if the particular emotion experienced is not conventionally considered “positive.”
Shared experiences buoy us. It’s like air to our lung, food to our stomach. We share because it feeds our soul.
So when we “seek to understand” first, it’s not only about logically understanding the other party. It’s to feel what the other is feeling — it’s empathy. You are giving a gift of shared experience by showing that you understand, no, you actually feel what the other is feeling. Then in return you allow the other an opportunity to give the same gift to you, because that act of giving is even more fulfilling. That’s the ideal we pursue in relationships.
But human relationships being a dynamic, collaborative thing, we don’t and we shouldn’t expect it to simply meet our own needs. When we don’t have a live human being to connect to when we need them, music is there to fill the gap for us. Whatever it is that you’re feeling, whatever it is that you desire to share, there’s a song for you out there, ready to connect with you, ready to validate what you’re feeling, to offer you the bond that elevates your soul.