Seek First To Understand...

November 1, 2017

"I like to listen. I have learned a great deal from listening carefully. Most people never listen."

~ Ernest Hemingway


There's a very popular business management book by the late Stephen Covey called, 'The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People'.  I'd certainly recommend this book to all individuals interested in developing a sense of personal responsibility and growth as a mature person.   Habit number five of the Seven Habits described in the book is, 'Seek first to understand, before being understood' - arguably one of the toughest, but most important skills an individual can develop.  It, essentially, calls for you to abandon your own agenda and to intently listen to another person to such an extent that you can fully empathise with that person and feel what they are feeling on the topic under discussion.  It takes great courage and skill to master  - just try it the next time you're in a heated 'debate' with another person or simply chatting with a colleague. 


So, what's this got to do with photography? 


It's a life skill I have brought to my own photography and I believe the quality of my work has benefited from it greatly.  Whenever, I arrive at a chosen location to create images, rather than immediately setting up the tripod and diving into the camera bag for my kit, I always take time to stop and 'listen' to the environment.   I don't just mean engage my ears and hear what's going on around me; I mean I immerse myself deep into the environment and engage all my senses in trying to understand the location and its ambience.  For example, for the above image,  I clearly remember arriving at Portmuck (a location I've visited many times previously) and rather than assume I know the spot I sat on a rock by the water's edge and just 'listened' - for approximately 10 minutes. 


During those ten minutes I could:-

  • hear the waves pounding the rocks and then receding down the shore causing small pebbles to roll and rattle in the retreat; 

  • smell the seaweed washed up and stranded upon the shore, left to rot; exposed to air; 

  • taste the atomised brine in the air as it coated my lips having being whipped off the crested waves by the strong wind;

  • feel the wind on my face and the fading heat from the dying sun;

  • watch the waves build their offence to attack the shore and spot the clouds sprint across the sky from the distant horizon: both infused with warm pastel shades from the waning sun.

My senses were bombarded with information streams that coalesced into a synthesis of dynamic, natural beauty - and I understood it, I felt it, and I knew how to respond appropriately to capture the beauty of the moment. 


"Listen with the intent to understand, not the intent to reply."

~ Stephen R Covey


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