Seek First to Understand

‘Seek first to understand.’  It’s one of Stephen Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.

This past weekend I came across a blog in a prominent industry magazine’s online edition which was highly critical of a recent response and the state of preparedness of a major metropolitan area.  I was quite set back by how outwardly critical this post was, particularly since the author is rather experienced in emergency management.

No matter what field we are in, we have a tendency to examine, critique, analyze, and criticize.  This is generally healthy and important, especially when there is something that can be learned and applied from the experience.  Things can easily go ugly, though.

The nitty gritty of this is that if you weren’t involved and aren’t providing a critique through something more or less official and reasonably objective, such as an after action report, you generally shouldn’t be commenting (at least publicly).  Why?  Primarily, you very likely don’t have all the information.  Second, what is the criticism gaining you aside from looking like an ass?

Seek first to understand.  That’s the main reason why we, particularly in emergency management, should be looking at other people’s incidents.  Yes, we can examine media reports and other sources of information, but be holistic and comprehensive.  If the people involved in managing the incident made mistakes, then learn from their mistakes.  Don’t criticize them for it – they very likely are already receiving that criticism internally.  They certainly don’t need you to Monday morning quarterback.  It does no one any good.

Pointing fingers at other people only makes them point fingers back and creates a culture of negativity.  In emergency management, we are fortunate enough to have a culture of collaboration, where we are generally willing to share our success and failures with others so that they may learn from them as well.  When we become critical, people become bitter, defensive, and isolationist.

It’s not to say that it’s inappropriate to use an incident as an example.  In December I wrote a post about how People Should Not Die in Exercises, in response to an article about an active shooter exercise in Kenya gone wrong. Was I harsh?  You bet your ass I was – and rightfully so.  The occurrence I wrote about was a great example of what not to do in exercises and an important lesson learned that a lot of people should know about to prevent further loss of life.

While I have as much a history of putting my foot in my mouth as the next person, all I’m saying is be careful how you spend your criticism credits.  When you start to criticize you are no longer seeking to understand.  If you aren’t seeking to understand, then no one learns.


6 thoughts on “Seek First to Understand

  1. Often it’s not about your message, it’s about how you deliver it. Avoid “That was all wrong” and “What did you do that for”. Try “Would doing it this way have made a difference?” Seek to create open discussion, to allow lessons to be learned. Forget about criticising, which just raises barriers. Try empathy first. Bear in mind that if there have been mistakes, the person responsible is likely to be already beating themselves up. Your help in this is neither needed nor wanted, nor useful. Seek to understand, support and help them to grow.

  2. It is a very fine line between criticism and constructive criticism. Its all in the way you say it and the tone in which you say it. Your comments on events need to be straight to the point and backed-up with some experience to be valid and beneficial to the person looking for the feed back.

  3. Tim you had some great points. I for one look forward to your input and yes I too have learned things from your previous blogs.
    Having said this, When I first learned about what happened in Flint Michigan regarding that community’s water supply, I was somewhat taken aback when i heard that the Flint Emergency Manager was even involved with recommending that the community change their source for water to an already polluted water source. Then when the city fathers took his advice and the community started getting sick, the truth came out that the emergency manager had been the one to recommend the change and the city fathers made that change.
    Hearing the report that the emergency manager was the one who recommended that change seemed to be an embarrassment to all of us. None of the rest of us knew the situation nor why that man gave the input to the city fathers that he did.
    Up until now, I have not said a word although I sure wanted to.
    This is a good example of what you are saying here.

  4. Ron,
    I appreciate the compliments and your readership!

    The Flint incident involves so many failures at so many levels. While I’ve continued to be generally aware of the big issues, I’ve honestly not kept up the details since it’s even now still evolving. I’m sure we still don’t have all the information on it. I’d be surprised if there isn’t a federal investigation into the negligence of it all.


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