1 Big Idea to Think About

  • In your relationships, make understanding others your first priority. When you make this a habit it will change every aspect of your life.

2 Ways You Can Apply This

  • Spend the first two minutes of every interaction with another person focused on understanding them. 
  • In your conversation, affirm or validate the other person’s feelings, concerns, or point of view.

3 Questions to Ask

  • Is my first inclination to understand others?
  • Has my ability to communicate been reduced because of technology? 
  • When was the last time I was focused on understanding the person I was speaking with and not focused on my own agenda?

Key Moments From the Show 

  • The leadership quality that changed every aspect of Ryan Renolyds’ life (4:15)
  • How the orientation towards the people we interact with changes the trajectory of our lives (8:10)
  • Why the digital world can lead to the underperformance of our communication (13:35)
  • A specific strategy to build a habit that helps you understand and connect to others(16:00)
  • The habit that will change every aspect of your life (21:32)

Links and Resources You’ll Love from the Episode

Greg McKeown:

Welcome. I’m your host, Greg McKeown. I’m the author of two New York Times Bestsellers, Essentialism, and Effortless, and I’m here with you on this journey to learn how to understand each other so that we can operate at our highest point of contribution. 

What is your habitual orientation towards other people? When you encounter people, customers, employees, spouse, children, an unhelpful person in customer service, what is your inclination? Is it to be heard by them? Is it to get by them? Is it to handle them as efficiently as possible so that you can get on with more important things? Is it your first inclination to understand them? 

Today I will share an interesting story, something counterintuitive I’ve learned, and some highly actionable advice. By the end of this episode, you’ll be able to use one habit to change every aspect of your day, perhaps even your life. Let’s begin.

Remember, if you want to learn faster, understand more deeply and increase your influence, share at least one idea from this podcast with someone else within the next 24 to 48 hours. 

I read a story this week that caught my attention. It was reported in Business Insider, and the link will be in the show notes. The title is Ryan Reynolds says learning conflict resolution changed his life and how he approaches business, which is quite a title even though that is what it’s about. But let’s just get to the story of it. 

Reynolds is said to have learned about conflict resolution when he attended a workshop in his early twenties when he was feeling, here’s his quote, “a little bit lost and a little bit angry.” (1)

Have you ever felt a little bit lost and a little bit angry? Well, his response, he said, “I wanted to fix something. I wanted to get better. So I took this workshop in conflict resolution, and I didn’t expect it to, but it really changed my life, and it changed how I applied those principles in business in particular.” (1)

 So here he is years before he’s become an A-list Hollywood actor, Free Guy, X-Men, The Proposal, many others (2), years before he has become an entrepreneur and extending his influence, frustrated again that phrase, a little bit lost and a little bit angry. And here’s how he describes what he learned. 

He said, “We live in a world that’s increasingly gamified, and I think we have an instinct to win, crush and kill,” he said all of this at Indeed’s Future Works conference. He continues, “If you can sort of disengage or disarm that instinct for a second and instead replace it with seeking to learn about somebody, that’s a leadership quality for me, at least that has quite literally changed every aspect of my life.”(1)

That really got my attention. It’s not just something that has been useful that he’s added into the leadership toolkit of his life, one more idea for how he can communicate with people. It’s much more significant than that, and it’s something that I enthusiastically relate with, even though I many times fail at this still. 

Let me get to that phrase again. “This has quite literally changed every aspect of my life.” Now it’s a matter of record that he owns Mint Mobile and Maximum Effort, a production company and digital marketing agency. He’s bought brands that he’s sold later for an estimated $610 million. He’s somewhat famously purchased Wrexham Football Club in 2020, and there’s a documentary now that you can watch about that process. But I think it’s fascinating that he draws a connection from this short, momentary seminar in his twenties and all of these things that have been successful since then.

He can see it not as one more thing but a different way of interacting with everyone all the time, or at least as close to that as possible. He goes on, “Instead of just trying to win or beat somebody that I disagree with, if I’m mirroring, empathizing and validating them, suddenly they’re an ally. Even if it doesn’t happen in the moment.” (1)

“You can’t address problems,” he says, “with other people unless you understand them.” Jokingly, he adds, “There’s still room for backstabbing someone and then tasting the blood of your enemies. But it’s never going to be as effective as trying to understand somebody.” (1)

That’s it. He’s capturing there something that I want to say, something that I have personally experienced, something I am still learning and struggling with, that our orientation towards the people that we meet, our general habit in interacting with the people that matter most to us and the people we meet along the way changes not just minutely a moment here and a moment there, but the whole trajectory of our lives.

And that should be surprising to you because most people haven’t invested even as much as Reynolds has here with this one workshop he attended. Most people haven’t invested almost anything in this precise specific ability, and yet it has this disproportionate impact. 

So I want to come back to those questions. When you encounter people, your customers, employees, the person who annoys you down the hall, the people you live with, your spouse, your children, the unhelpful person in customer service, is your inclination to understand them, or is it something else? 

What about if someone disagrees with you? If someone seems to be genuinely unhelpful when you are trying to achieve an objective. They see things differently. Does this stress you out? Do you see it as an irritation? Does it just become some sort of ego battle where you are escalating your frustration, and their resistance goes up on the other side?

I know that I’ve been struggling with this over the last couple of months. It’s been an intense transition by every estimation to be able to continue doing the work that I find so meaningful in this podcast, in writing the new book, in doing new research, in being able to continue to teach and speak around the world while also trying to transition into this Cambridge research, taking my family to England, that whole transition. There are things along that journey that have been surprisingly frustratingly, terribly annoying that that doesn’t even do it justice. For example, my children, my poor wife are so tired of hearing me share this with people, but nevertheless, getting a bank account in England. That is an outrageously hard process. And every person that I had spoken to that has gone through the same journey. The new dean of the business school at Cambridge took a month after he’d arrived in England to be able to get a bank account because everything is dependent on something else.

You have to have a residence here to be able to get the bank account, but you can’t get the bank account until you’ve got a residence here, and it’s also interconnected. And then I had experience day after day after day. I was getting up early in the morning on US time trying to get this done ahead of time to make the transition easier. And I would do precisely what I was told to do, following exactly what I was told to do. And yet I would get these form emails back, Sorry, this has not been accepted. Please send instead something on this list. And that’s what I would do precisely what they asked to do. And this circular process, day after day for 30 days, I would say something in that range. 

This is like that scene in Dr. Strange, what’s the name? Mumon. And Dr. Strange locked him in an eternal cycle so that he can’t escape. And this is how he has cleverly defeated this impossible foe. Well, I was stuck in the eternal cycle of repeat. So in those moments of frustration, in this reality of our lives, when we live in a world that is so complex and so often this digital world intended to make life easier, effortless, faster, can make things so much harder, so much slower, so much more irritating. 

For example, now that I’m on this rant here, there is a problem, have you not experienced it, where the digital challenge you are experiencing with the website, with an app, with a service cannot be solved by anyone in customer service. So you call up the person in customer service, and they are completely separate, completely disconnected from the people who can actually solve the problem. The person you are talking to is limited by the system in front of them, just like you are.

They aren’t going to code something different to make this possible. They aren’t the person to be able to resolve and make the exception. This division between the person in customer service and the person in your digital world is a serious challenge for major corporations to solve and a serious frustration for the rest of us. Now let me connect these ideas together, lest you see that I am just complaining for the sake of it. 

Think here about a very interesting article that was written by Edward Hallowell. It’s called Overloaded Circuits, Why Smart People Underperform. Now, Hallowell is a psychiatrist. He served as an instructor at Harvard Medical School for 20 years. He’s the director of the Hallowell Centers in New York City. He’s authored several books, including Driven to Distraction at Work, and How to Focus and Be More Productive. Well, in the abstract for that article, let me quote from the abstract.

He says, “Frenzied executives who fidget through meetings lose track of their appointments and jab at the door, closed button on the elevator aren’t crazy, just crazed. They suffer from the neurological phenomenon, ADT, and we’re familiar with ADT now. It isn’t an illness,” he puts, “it’s purely a response to the hyperkinetic environment in which we live, but it has become epidemic in today’s organizations.” (3) Who can doubt that? In this article, he’s talking about the effect of ADT on our ability to focus and give attention to the job at hand, you know, to do deep work. 

But the question I have for you is, what is the effect of this kind of relentlessly overloaded, over-busy, over-digitized experience on our ability to communicate? Yes sir. Even if you were a highly skilled communicator, even if you had spent time really developing your skills to understand others, what would the effect of all of this digitized, non-essentialist environment have on your ability to understand others?

Interestingly, I think there’s an opportunity here, a sort of killing two birds with one stone. Again, now back to the abstract, Hallowell says, “ADT can be controlled by engineering one’s environment and one’s emotional, physical health. Make time every few hours for a human moment, a face-to-face exchange with a person you like.” (3)

Now, I want to take these two threads and put it into a single point of actionable advice. And it’s this. Spend the first two minutes of every interaction with another person understanding them, shelve your agenda. Sometimes I actually have to close my eyes in order to do it. At first, I sort of have to prepare myself, put away all those thoughts, all those distractions, close the laptop, put away the phone If that’s the kind of environment it is. Close the tabs in my brain. Put it all aside. Almost like you’re preparing for meditation. But instead of giving your attention to your breath, to this moment, you bring to bear your attention to the person you’re speaking to. You shelve your agenda and validate them.

Certainly, next time you have the inclination to win in a conversation, you can disarm that instinct, as Reynolds points out, even for a moment, and focus on understanding the other person, affirming them, or validating them in some way. 

This actionable advice is both smaller and greater than the way we tend to think about this interpersonal skill. It’s smaller in the sense that you can just do this in two minutes or less. You can do it using very simple phrases. Tell me about you, or let me see if I understand what you are saying. Or just simple validation. Oh, that must be so frustrating for you. 

So in a sense, this is tiny, infinitesimally small communication shift, but it’s greater in this sense. This must become habitual and ubiquitous. It’s to do this again and again with every person that you meet. 

Sometimes that will be hard because you’re distracted. Sometimes you’ll forget to do it cause you are frustrated. Your agenda seems so urgent. Sometimes it will be challenging because you’re emotional. You really disagree about it, and you are activated. You want to have an argument, you want to defend yourself, you want to argue your point, and you want to complain about your side of it. But to develop what we’re talking about into a habit and every day all through the daily habit is seriously life-changing. 

Reading this article about this interview with Reynolds validated my experience in 25 years of experimenting with this habit. Every time I have used this habit, it has made an impact instantly. I can see it right before my eyes. I can watch someone going from being defensive to calming down, to even starting to feel validated. Then they become open. Meanwhile, I’m actually gaining data. I mean, I’m often genuinely understanding something I didn’t understand before.

It’s also giving me a moment to pause and explore the world and find richness that is more curious than my perception of the world as was. So there’s an immediate payoff. And then there are all these secondary benefits like when it is time for me to talk, what I have to say will be far closer to the unique precise situation the other person is actually in and where they’re coming from can then just contrast this with when I haven’t done it, and there’s so many times I haven’t, and what’s the effect? Immediately somebody else’s defensiveness goes up. They just don’t even know whether what I’m sharing is relevant for them, yet they haven’t sorted through their own thoughts, and maybe I am just now being irrelevant to them because I’m sharing something that isn’t what they’re actually dealing with. 

And I think about all of this as some kind of communication stacking. Although it might even be more precise than that. It might be more to do with understanding stacking, where you develop precise skills that cluster together to make this habit of habits. We’re just scratching the surface of this subject. It’s one that we’re going to return to again and again because it isn’t just a small dimension of leadership, for example. It is closer to the summum bonum of what it means to be able to accelerate your contribution. 

In summary, here is the idea: Changing your habitual orientation to the people in your life, from whatever it might be towards understanding them first, can change, will change every aspect of your life. I don’t hesitate to say that. That is my experience, my lived experience for a quarter of a century. I only wish that I had done better at it and invested more in it. 

It’s like the feeling of wishing you could go back 25 years and invest more in Apple stock, something like that. The return on the investment has been so high and in so many ways in both the quality of my life, the quality of my relationships, and the actual performance in business. It is all directly driven from this single habit. This is something that can change every aspect of your life.

Well, what is one phrase you can share with someone else from today’s conversation? What is one story that stood out to you or one idea that you have had? And who can you share it with? 

Remember to subscribe to the podcast if you haven’t. New episodes come out on Tuesdays and Thursdays. If you found value in today’s episode, please write a review on Apple Podcasts. The first five people to write a review of this episode will receive free access to the Essentialism Academy. To be able to access that, go to essentialism.com/podcastpromo. Here’s the big quote from today’s episode for me is from Reynolds at the beginning. “We live in a world that’s increasingly gamified, and I think we have an instinct to win, crush and kill.” He continues, “If you can sort of disengage or disarm that instinct for a second and instead replace it with seeking to learn about somebody, that’s a leadership quality for me, at least. That has quite literally changed every aspect of my life.” 

Good luck with this experiment. Until next time.

Resources from the episode 

(1) Jackson, S. (n.d.). Ryan Reynolds says learning conflict resolution changed his life and how he approaches business. [online] Business Insider. Available at: https://www.businessinsider.com/ryan-reynolds-says-conflict-resolution-changed-his-life-business-approach-2022-10?r=US&IR=T%5C [Accessed 2 Nov. 2022].

(‌2) IMDb. (1976). Ryan Reynolds. [online] Available at: https://www.imdb.com/name/nm0005351/.

(3) Harvard Business Review. (2005). Overloaded Circuits: Why Smart People Underperform. [online] Available at: https://hbr.org/2005/01/overloaded-circuits-why-smart-people-underperform.