SFTU versus STFU

Fake Dictionary, Dictionary definition of the word understand.

The year 1989 was an important one for me, as it was the year that I quit smoking, and more importantly also the year that I first met my wife. If you ask her, had I not quit smoking, I would not be her husband today.

But 1989 was also the year that one of the most important books of the last 50 years came out, and I am sure that most of you will recognize it, and many of you will have read it as well.

I not only read The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, but a few of those habits have become cornerstones of how I have tried to live my life ever since. I hope that this will not lead to an analysis of just how effective I have been, but I do want to share with you my favourite habit of the seven.

Now there are a couple of the habits that are more easily recalled than my favourite, because they have become part of our vocabulary, partly thanks to the success of the book, which sold over 25 million copies.

“Think Win-Win” and “Be Proactive” have become sayings that most people will have heard before, and “Put First Things First”, and “Synergize” are also kind of cool, but still not number one on my list.

Is it “Sharpen the Saw”, or “Begin with the End in Mind”? No, but I like those too. My favourite is habit number 5, “Seek First to Understand, and Then to Be Understood”.

I like to abbreviate things, so I will just call it Seek First to Understand, or SFTU. The first time that I jotted it down using just those four letters, I was struck by how closely it resembles another 4-letter acronym, STFU. For the uninitiated, STFU is short for “Shut the Hell Up”, or something close to that.

The reason that I found this so relevant is that STFU is actually almost the exact opposite of SFTU, especially in the arena of family business and family leadership.

The old fashioned, autocratic parenting style that many of us boomers lived through was very much “this is how things are going to be”, and if anyone dared to question Dad, we were often told, essentially, to STFU, and get in line.

Nowadays, thanks in some small part to the popularity of Covey’s book but also in large part to societal changes, people have mellowed somewhat, and active listening is actually something that many leaders are taught to do.

But Seek First to Understand is not just about listening, of course. Yes, you often need to listen, and watch and read, and interpret, but the goal here is understanding.

And please note that the habit is not called “Seek to Understand”, but Seek FIRST to understand.

That little nuance is the key, because that is where the leader needs to have the maturity to admit that they do not necessarily have all of the answers, that they have the curiosity to learn about the ideas and opinions of others, and have the courage to ask and listen to what others have to say.

Those who advise families in business who are hoping to transition their business, their wealth, and ultimately their legacy to the next generation will almost all agree that clear, frequent and open communication is an absolute necessity if you want to have any chance of success in this endeavour.

Obviously, I agree. The point of this blog is to remind people that good communication is predicated on the people communicating having the right attitude so that a true exchange of ideas can be had.

I love the old quote attributed to George Bernard Shaw, “The biggest problem with communication is the illusion that it occurred”. People assume that because they said something, the other person heard and understood them. They often go even one step further and assume that the person agreed!

Please try to Seek First to Understand, and Then to Be Understood. It will be well worth it. It is a habit, so that means that it can be learned.

And it sure beats the hell out of STFU!