On changing attitudes

I once took a class based on Stephen Covey’s book, “7 Habits of Highly Effective People.”

I took it because I thought it would help me be more organized and be able to manage my time better. By practicing these seven habits, people can change their attitudes and behaviors to improve their lives, but it certainly isn’t easy.

Habit 4 —Think win-win — is one of the hardest to practice. Growing up in a highly competitive society, we think win-lose is the only modus operandi. We want to be No. 1, to be the best, so we naturally strive to get ahead of the other person or team or company. But Covey says that kind of thinking is based on an attitude of scarcity, the belief that there is not enough to go around. Win-win is based on an attitude of abundance, that there’s enough for everybody. Cooperation rather than competition is what we need to cultivate in ourselves and in our children.

A wonderful example of “Think win-win” is a writer’s group I joined that was made up of professional and amateur writers who came together each week to encourage each other and critique one another’s work. A person’s work is read by the convener and the others listen carefully and offer suggestions to improve it or praise a well-written story. When someone gets their work published, the others genuinely rejoice with that person. There is no attitude of one-upmanship, but rather a feeling that we are here to help each other succeed.

This may be antithetical to most sports, but if two teams play well, even though one wins, the other can have a feeling of putting up a fair fight. In business, both parties have to agree on a fair transaction that will be beneficial to each side. In marriage, husband and wife need to negotiate so that both will feel respected and valued.

Covey advocates the mentality of “Think win-win or no deal.” If the other person is not willing to cooperate in a way that both sides benefit, he says not to play the game. If there’s inequity, there’s no deal in his philosophy.

Habit 5 — Seek first to understand, then to be understood — is another hard habit to practice. It is the habit of empathetic communication. Understanding comes through listening. Covey speaks of the levels of listening: ignoring, pretend listening, selective listening, and attentive and empathetic listening. Most of us spend the majority of our time at the first three levels. We think we know the answers so we are quick to jump to conclusions, judge people, or try to impose our opinions on them.

In our self-centered world, we often feel so misunderstood. When we disagree, we try to get the other person to come around to our way of thinking. A more effective way of relating is to ask the other person to help you understand his or her behavior or idea. Covey speaks of giving the other person “psychological air” to explore feelings and express emotions without being judged. Empathetic listening is listening with the eyes, ears and heart.

It is so life-giving to have someone really listen with their whole being. I once had a spiritual director who got tears in his eyes when I spoke of something painful in my life. It was like being bathed in healing waters.

To learn about the other habits, I recommend Covey’s book. These habits have the potential of making us happier people and improving our relationship with others. But they are hard to practice.