Kierkegaard on the Art of Helping Others to Understand

Written by Sean Murphy. Posted in Books, Quotes, Rules of Thumb

Soren Kierkegaard (1813-1855) was a prolific and seminal Danish religious author who wrote using pseudonyms across a range of subjects. After his death “The Point of View for My Work as an Author” was published. Chapter A2 opens with a very useful prescription for effective sales. You need to start from what Jack Carew in “You’ll Never Get No For an Answer” calls the operating reality of the person you are trying to convince.

Abraham Lincoln, an American president contemporary (1809-1865) with Kierkegaard, expressed a similar sentiment when he said

“When I’m getting ready to reason with a man, I spend one-third of my time thinking about myself and what I am going to say, and two-thirds thinking about him and what he is going to say.”

Here is the opening paragraph to Chapter A2 from Kierkegaard’s Writings, Volume 22 translated by Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong, reformatted so that the opening paragraph has added line breaks to make some key thoughts stand out.

If One Is Truly to Succeed in Leading a Person to a Specific Place, One Must First and Foremost Take Care to Find Him Where He is and Begin There.

This is the secret in the entire art of helping. 

Anyone who cannot do this is himself under a delusion if he thinks he is able to help someone else. In order truly to help someone else, I must understand more than he–but certainly first and foremost understand what he understands.

If I do not do that, then my greater understanding does not help him at all. If I nevertheless want to assert my greater understanding, then it is because I am vain or proud, then basically instead of benefiting him I really want to be admired by him.

But all true helping begins with a humbling.

The helper must first humble himself under the person he wants to help and thereby understand that to help is not to dominate but to serve, that to help is a not to be the most dominating but the most patient, that to help is a willingness for the time being to put up with being in the wrong and not understanding what the other understands.

Whenever a client says “I need smarter prospects” I am reminded by Kierkegaard’s “But all true helping begins with a humbling” that the real problem is probably with a lack of understanding of the prospect’s operating reality. Stephen Covey also captured this in the fifth of his Seven Habits

“Seek first to understand, then to be understood.”

Two of my favorite short quotes by Kierkegaard are

“Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.”

“Our life always expresses the result of our dominant thoughts.”

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