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Before he got into the Habits themselves, Stephen Covey laid a foundation, a core set of bases for understanding what was to follow. One of my recent discoveries on my 25th year of study was just how much what mattered at the start, mattered at the finish. And in the part between.

The primary, possibly most powerful tenet of The Seven Habits Philosophy is that of personal responsibility. Make sure you understand that. Everything that we do about what happens to us – is our fault. I should emphasise, given a participant’s interjection that ‘not everything is our fault’ that not everything that happens to us is our fault – the tenet doesn’t say that. It states that what we do about it is our fault.

Which means that when events pressurise upon us, when we want things to change, when we realise we don’t know or understand something, then responsibility for addressing those challenges lies not with Mum, friends, the government or the media. It lies within us. We are responsible.

This is almost too much to bear for some people, and for some vulnerable people it is nigh on impossible. Understanding personal responsibility can be a curse as much as it is liberating, when it comes to judging situations. “Why don’t you just DO something?” is easy for one to say, hard for another to do.

Which brings us to the first idea we have to understand if we are to understand the remainder of the Habits, and life in general. (Incidentally, reading the book will raise your levels of understanding of psychology as well as philosophy.)

The first concept to understand is that of Paradigms. In essence, and to quote Dr Covey, it is summed up in the phrase, “How we see the problem, is the problem.”

Paradigm is based on a Greek word, Paradigma, meaning pattern. If you consider (my understanding of) Gestalt Theory, it means we see and assess things based on a pattern that our experiences have formed. Paradigms are why we pull on some door handles and push on door plates – our experience instantly tells us which we are approaching and we act accordingly. That is at a basic level, but at an advanced level it is why we judge people and situations – our upbringing, state of mind, prior experience and judgements all inform us and we usually assess and act without further thought.

In demonstrations, Covey asks half of his audience to look at a picture of a woman’s face while the remainder close their eyes. Then the audience changes places and he shows a picture of a saxophone player. Then the pictures close and all open their eyes. Then a third picture is shown, which to those in the know is a composite, a drawing utilising the same line structure but slightly changed detail, and the audience is asked to discuss. Half insist it is a girl, the other half a saxophonist. Debate takes place an eventually all see both.

This is where it gets interesting. Think on the idea that how we see things influences what we do about it, and that our past experience influences how we see things. This has two effects.

First,  if we see things differently from others, we act differently and if we see the wrong thing, we do the wrong thing. That is not too sinister. But secondly, we can be directed to see things a certain way – and therefore act as we have been ‘told’ to see.

What does this mean?

It means that it does not take long, or very much, to direct people’s thinking.

Advertisers do it. We know that. But the media does it, too. How often have you been told that ‘outrage’ has been caused by something a politician has done, when if you were to step away from being told that you are outraged to realise that only the Opposition has ‘been outraged’ – surprise – and what has happened is really quite insignificant. But the media primes the reader to be angered using adjective and adverb to exaggerate factual content.

Not only is it true that “How you see the problem is the problem,” but “How you are told to see the problem can cause problems.”

A lot of people I speak to are quite defensive when I speak of the 7 Habits. What I find from what they say is they haven’t a clue what they’re defensive about – but their experiences and paradigms are telling them that this is religion/psychobabble/not relevant/I’m nuts.

In essence, understanding Paradigms lets us ask ourselves several question about our issues, challenges and problems. They are:

  • “How do you see yours?”
  • “Am I seeing the situation correctly?”
  • “Does it really matter? And
  • “What am I going to do about it? If anything.”

Tomorrow we’ll look at the Personality and Character Ethic, and how even that influences how we see and act.