“You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view…until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.” ~ Atticus Finch, “To Kill a Mockingbird”
The first self-help book I ever read was Stephen Covey’s “7 Habits of Highly Effective People.” I use his weekly organizing technique to this day. Habit 5 is to seek first to understand, then to be understood. While I often fall short, this has been something I have strived to do for most of my adult life. It is one of those universal lessons.
One can find it in literature, like this quote from Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird.” One can find it in sales conferences, where “the client doesn’t care how much you know until they know how much you care” has been a cliché for years. One will find it in prayers such as The Prayer of Saint Francis, “O Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek…to be understood as to understand.” It is the major theme of the Dale Carnegie classic, “How to Win Friends and Influence People.”
Human beings are social creatures. We were made to be in fellowship with one another, and that requires the ability to empathize, otherwise society breaks down into violence. We have been losing this thread for some time now, and the reaction to the COVID pandemic has made it worse. It began in the most unlikely of places – universities – with the political correctness movement. What started out as a reminder to use good manners quickly morphed into a way of prohibiting any point of view that ran counter to the consensus.
A few years ago, I wrote about the problem with straw man arguments. A straw man argument is when one distorts the actual argument another person is making, then responds to the distortion they created instead of the actual argument of the other person. This happens in politics all the time. A politician will promote a healthcare program as an example. Her opponent may argue that her proposal has unintended consequences that will actually make healthcare worse, not better. The politician responds by claiming her opponent is against people having healthcare. That is a straw man: the opponent isn’t against healthcare at all, but truly believes this plan will make things worse. She ignores the actual argument and runs ad after ad saying her opponent doesn’t want you to have healthcare.
Straw man arguments have been around forever, but the difference today seems to be that we have begun to believe that the straw man is actually our opponent’s argument. This happens because our society increasingly is no longer concerned with actually trying to understand.
We have been dealing with multiple fund families in what we have named the Mutual Fund Scandal 2.0. One fund family has sent written correspondence to multiple retirement plan sponsors, an ERISA attorney representing a plan sponsor, and us. The first paragraph of each of these states that we don’t understand what they are doing. They then go on to describe what they are doing verbatim to our description.
One of our plan sponsor clients stated that she was taken aback by how little understanding of the plan sponsor’s point of view the fund company showed. Likewise, they have shown a misunderstanding of the investment adviser’s role and point of view, which is astonishing; plan sponsors are their end-clients. Almost all plan sponsors work with advisers who deal directly with the various fund families. How could they not understand? Even worse, how could they start a conversation by accusing their clients of not understanding? Even if that was correct, an effective person always seeks first to understand, then to be understood.
This particular fund family is one who historically has a reputation of client service excellence, which makes this whole episode all the more puzzling. What has changed? I believe it’s long COVID-19.
This particular firm is still not back in the office full time. For two and a half years, they haven’t actually seen clients in person. They haven’t even seen each other. Sure, they can still do all the administrative tasks they need to do remotely. The job gets done, but that isn’t good enough. When dealing with human beings one needs to be effective, not efficient. Efficiency in human interactions comes across as rudeness. Working remotely and not interacting with actual human beings for two and a half years may not have reduced efficiency all that much, but it has destroyed effectiveness.
To be understanding, one has to be in relationship. We have lost a great deal of that relationship-building over the last two and a half years. Our reaction to COVID may very well end up doing more harm to our society than the virus itself. That isn’t to say that there will not be benefits to the technology that has allowed the professional world to keep moving forward, but there must be balance. Human interaction is of utmost importance. To truly understand others, one has to follow Atticus Finch’s advice to put yourself in their skin and walk around in it. That is a hard thing to do normally; It is impossible if one never leaves the house. At least that is my perspective.
Chuck Osborne, CFA