12 Angry Men: the Power of Seek First to Understand


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

[Stephen R. Covey]

A boy is put on trial for murder, accused of killing his father with a knife. The jury is composed of twelve men of varying ages, personalities, cultural backgrounds and social standings. They retire to the jury room after the admonishment that the defendant is innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.

Eleven of the jurors vote for conviction, each for reasons of his own. The sole holdout is Juror No.8, played by Henry Fonda. What begins as an open and shut case about an “ethnic” boy soon becomes a mini-drama of each of the jurors' prejudices and preconceptions about the trial, the accused, and each other.

This is the premise in the 1957 classic 12 Angry Men a good movie to insert in the narrative arc of a strategic conversation team retreat or training. It's perfect for the emotional climax at the end of day one, to reflect on how our worldviews impact decisions and how we don't need to have formal power to influence others.

The movie was filmed mostly in one room using different camera angles to convey the tension created by personality conflicts revealed by body language and words. The experience of watching (or witnessing) the dialogue opens the door to a deeper understanding of humanity and how we're often called to discern “truth” as we're influenced by our emotions, past experiences, memory and its limitations, prejudices, and a myriad other factors.

Henry Fonda as the sole driving force of change proves that it's possible to refocus and examine the facts. When we watch the movie, we are accomplices in taking sides and labeling… until we too confront the questions.

Seek first to understand

The initial verdict of the jury's preliminary vote nets eleven guilty and one not guilty. We soon learn that Fonda is the only one voted not guilty. His next step it to propose a secret vote and asks there be a discussion if someone else votes not guilty.

Rather than confronting the other jurors, Fonda observes them and sees what's going on — the Salesman and Yankees fan wants to get out of the deliberation in time for the baseball game, “we can all get out of here pretty quick. I have tickets to the ball game tonight. Yanks and Cleveland.” Then he speaks his mind.

He proposes something rather simple, taking an anonymous vote, a request easy to grant. His justification for asking the other jurors to invest the time, “I don’t know, maybe no reason…” but “We owe him a few words… let’s take an hour.”

In the conversation, Fonda puts himself at the same level of the others, “I don’t have anything brilliant, I only know as much as you do” and “It’s not easy to raise my hand.”

As Fonda persuades the jurors to re-examine the evidence, we learn the backstory of each man. Juror No.3 (Lee J. Cobb), a bullying self-made man, has estranged himself from his own son. Juror No.7 (Jack Warden) has an ingrained mistrust of foreigners; so, to a lesser extent, does Juror No.6 (Edward Binns).

Jurors No.10 (Ed Begley) and #11 (George Voskovec), so certain of the infallibility of the Law, assume that if the boy was arrested, he must be guilty. Juror No.4 (E.G. Marshall) is an advocate of dispassionate deductive reasoning. Juror No.5 (Jack Klugman), like the defendant a product of the streets, hopes that his guilty vote will distance himself from his past.

Juror No.12 (Robert Webber), an advertising man, doesn't understand anything that he can't package and market. And Jurors No.1 (Martin Balsam), No.2 (John Fiedler) and No.9 (Joseph Sweeney), anxious not to make waves, “go with the flow.”

One by one, Fonda disarms the objections and distractions with patience. He says, “I kept putting myself in the kid’s place. I’d have asked for another lawyer.” and creates doubts with “supposing they are wrong… they are only people, people make mistakes.” He's part of the conversation and demonstrates he's listening.

Create movement

The turning point is when Fonda produces a knife identical to the one used in the murder. He bought it in the same neighborhood of the accused the night before. It's an arresting moment because of the concrete possibility that someone else has the same exact knife.

From the earlier secret vote one more person changed his verdict to not guilty, juror No.9. Four additional jurors subsequently changed their vote, ending the second part of the movie with a six to six tie. Fonda acknowledged his first supporter publicly and continued to hold one on one conversations with other jurors to learn about their motivations. His determination to keep everyone focused on the task at hand is tested by two of the jurors playing tic-tac-toe. A man's life “isn’t a game,” he says.

Another turning point in the examination of the evidence is when Juror No.5 remarks about the old man who testified against the boy. The assertion that “witnesses can make mistakes” inspires Fonda to learn more about the man's apartment, “I’d like to know if an old man who drags one foot cos he had a stroke can get from his bedroom to his front door in 15 seconds.” How indeed.

Fonda recreates the scene of the old man going to the door, “Here's what I think happened: the old man heard the fight between the boy and his father a few hours earlier. Then, when he's lying in his bed, he heard a body hit the floor in the boy's apartment, heard the woman scream from across the street, got to his front door as fast as he could, heard somebody racing down the stairs and assumed it was the boy!”

The concrete demonstration helps the other jurors make sense of what they heard vs. what was possible, making it tangible.

In other parts of the dialogue, Fonda lets jurors' statements undermine their credibility.

Build on momentum

With six jurors to go, Fonda set out to connect with each one based on his behavior. Bonding through listening works with neutral jurors, rational argument with those who had displayed those qualities as he asks people for feedback and participation. We often see juror No.9 in full-frame he has a way of cutting to the crucial point and stating the obvious after it has eluded the others.

The emotional ones are more unpredictable, yet still worthy of respect, “it´s always difficult to keep personal prejudice out of a thing like this.”

One person can be the driving force for change. When we seek first to understand, we can then create movement based on what we learn, and build momentum as we continue to focus on the motives that inform the behaviors of others.