SOMETHING GOOD FROM THE TRAGEDY OF K-129


I often have online chats with people that delve into bad areas: politics and religion.  I avoid religion, because it is impolite to discuss it, other than to perhaps learn what somebody believes. Politics, however, I don’t so quickly avoid.  I ought to learn.

Today, a Russian friend on Skype began a discussion about how a US submarine collided with a Russian submarine, killing a Russian sailor.  Immediately, I was on “high alert,” because of the sentence, because I had no body language or voice behind it, and because my country was being criticized from abroad.  Oh, not just from abroad, but from Russia, and being 65, one can imagine how my life has been flooded with opinions about Russia.

A quick Google search led me to many places of interest, reminding me of when the Thresher sank, in 1963, still unknown as to why.  I vividly remember that.

This particular incident occurred five years later, well northwest of Hawaii.  K-129 sank without notable reason.  There are many such possibilities, but despite part being salvaged, the answers are still not clear.  Today, the cause of the disaster is believed by many in Russia to have been due to a collision with the USS Swordfish, although “officially” no US submarine was within 300 nm.  I suspect there may well have been an accident on board K-129, since these are most unforgiving vessels when mistakes are made or key systems fail.

My friend continued, saying the US got to the site the first.  We did, after the then Soviets had tried and failed to find it.  We had better sonar at the time, and we had the advantage of triangulation.  That led to the salvage operation, which was incomplete.

I did not like the tone of the conversation, which seemed critical.  I became excessively formal, which I do when I become annoyed or angry, and I admitted that.  I said it was a good time to end the conversation, which to me was going badly.  Regarding why the US found K-129, I again mentioned triangulation and better sonar that we had.

The other person typed back, “I see your point of view.”  Suddenly, the sky cleared.  She had said the magic words:  the notion “Maybe you are right” or “Maybe I was not correct.”  My first response was to comment that was one of the nicest sentences she had ever written.

Then, I went through all the possibilities for what could have happened to the submarine, including covert operations we had that nobody in my position will ever know.  I opened myself up to explain how these possibilities existed, which five minutes earlier, was completely contrary to what I had been thinking.

This is the idea that Stephen Covey promulgated, of “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.”  Neither of us started there, but my friend did first, and the effect on me was profound.  Such behavior should not be counterintuitive, but it is to many.  When we argue, we are often so busy thinking what to say next that we fail to listen to the other side.  Listening takes time; listening with a sense of trying to understand takes even more.  Many things that take time on the front end save far more on the back end.

I used the technique often with others when I was a hospital medical director, when people called, complaining about the care.  I would initially try to understand all facets of the complaint.  I would summarize the person’s view, not only in their words, but in their emotions, too. If I weren’t correct, I continued until I could summarize the complaint to their satisfaction, asking them as often as I needed, “Do you feel I understand the entire nature of your complaint?” I could feel, over the phone, the anger go out of the person’s voice.  They were expecting quite the opposite; I was neither agreeing with them nor defending my institution.  I was only trying to understand them, nothing more.  I then asked the caller what they wanted me to do.  Some problems I could fix, but a surprisingly large number of people were satisfied that they had been understood by another human being, something called “validation.”

The next time in an argument with someone, I will again try that technique.  It has been a while since I have used it, mostly because I do not spend a lot of time in the public eye.  It takes time, and validating somebody does not mean agreeing with them. Nor does it mean one is weak in allowing openness to new ideas, although many in this country believe that.  Validating does not allow the other side a “free pass” to avoid listening to my side:  “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.”  So far, I have stressed the first part.  I have my turn, too, once I have understood the other side, and a right to my opinion.  My opinion, however, will now be given knowing what the other person believes and why.  By understanding their thoughts, I understand their view, which, while different from mine, allows me to choose what I should and should not say. They are more likely to give me the same courtesy if I give it to them first.

What happened to K-129?  I honestly don’t know.  Does anybody?  I don’t know that, either.  What did happen is that two people today avoided a fight over its fate.

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