Table of Contents
Habit 5: Seek First to Understand, Then to be Understood
from The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen Covey (1989)
3 Main Ideas
- Empathic Listening is a form of communication in which one listens with the intent to fully, really, and deeply understand what the other person is saying. It is a means of understanding the other person so deeply that you can see the world through their eyes and truly understand how they feel. It is a way of going beyond surface communication and truly seeing the world from another person’s perspective.
- Before you make judgments or pronouncements, offer solutions, or give advice, you need to be able to fully diagnose the situation or understand where the other person is coming from. Empathic listening doesn’t mean that you must agree with someone. Rather, it’s that you fully, deeply understand that person, emotionally as well as intellectually.
- Once you have understood the other person’s perspective and feelings, you also need to be brave enough to speak up and make your ideas and feelings known. You should have the courage to make yourself be understood. When you’re able to state your own ideas clearly, specifically, and contextually (ie. in the context of understanding other people’s perspectives and concerns), you increase the credibility of your ideas and increase the potential for mutual understanding. Win/Win requires consideration (listening) and courage (making yourself understood)
5 Key Takeaways
- Effective communication through listening is one of the most important skills in life. Few people have received training on how to listen so effectively that they can really, deeply understand another human being from that individual’s own frame of reference.
- Before you make judgments or pronouncements, offer solutions, or give advice, you need to be able to fully diagnose the situation or understand where the other person is coming from. This is the essence of empathic listening.
- Empathic listening involves listening with all your senses engaged: your ears, your eyes and your heart. Sometimes, it isn’t even necessary to talk in order to empathize. 10% of our communication is represented by the words we say, 30% by our sounds, and 60% by our body language.
- You have to build the skills of empathic listening on a foundation of character that inspires openness and trust. You must have integrity, maturity, and reserves of trust that allows the other person to be vulnerable and open to you.
- The key is to have a genuine desire to understand the perspective of the other person. Don’t just ask questions with the intent to respond; ask questions to understand. Asking insightful questions, and really listening to the response is essential to trying to understand other people’s point of views. Ask questions. Ask different types of questions that help you to better understand another person’s perspective, opinions, or feelings. After asking the questions, deeply consider and listen to what the other person is really saying.
- Empathic (from empathy) listening gets inside another person’s frame of reference. You look out through it, you see the world the way they see the world, you understand their paradigm, you understand how they feel. (306)
- The essence of empathic listening is not that you agree with someone; it’s that you fully, deeply understand that person, emotionally as well as intellectually. (306)
- But you can always seek first to understand. That’s something that’s within your control. And as you do that, as you focus on your Circle of Influence, you really, deeply understand other people. You have accurate information to work with, you get to the heart of matters quickly, you build Emotional Bank Accounts, and you give people the psychological air they need so you can work together effectively. (327)
- People don’t have to open up verbally before you can empathize. You can empathize all the time with their behavior. You can be discerning, sensitive, and aware and you can live outside your autobiography when that is needed. (328)
- Seek first to understand. Before the problems come up, before you try to evaluate and prescribe, before you try to present your own ideas – seek to understand. It’s a powerful habit of effective interdependence. (329)
Habit 5 asks us to practice empathy, consideration, and courage. It asks us to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes and encourages us to improve the way we listen and communicate with others by practicing empathic listening. Habit 5 asks us to be considerate and listen carefully with the intent to understand. It asks us to be better listeners.
Frequently, we do not listen with the intent to understand. We often participate in a conversation by either speaking or preparing to speak, and few people take the time to really absorb what the other person is really trying to say. We want to be understood, but rarely spend time trying to understand others.
When we fail to understand other people properly, misunderstanding and miscommunication occurs. Spouses become distant, children become estranged, workplaces develop hostile and toxic cultures, countries go to war, and so on. Habit 5 encourages us to put ourselves into another person’s shoes and see the world through their eyes. We can do this by practicing empathic listening.
Empathic Listening is a form of communication in which one listens with the intent to fully, really, and deeply understand what the other person is saying. It is a means of understanding the other person so deeply that you can see the world through their eyes and truly understand how they feel. It is a way of going beyond surface communication and truly seeing the world from another person’s perspective.
Once we are able to do that, we need to develop the courage to also speak up and let our ideas, opinions, and feelings be known. We must be brave enough to let ourselves be understood. In order to achieve Win/Win outcomes, we must be considerate (listen and understand) and courageous (make ourselves understood).
As you practice Habit 5, because you really listen, you become influenceable. i.e. open to the other person’s point of view. And being influenceable is the key to influencing others. Your Circle of Influence begins to expand. And you increase your ability to influence many of the things in your Circle of Concern.
Habit 5: Seek First to Understand, Then to be Understood
- We have such a tendency to rush in, to fix things up with good advice. But we often fail to take the time to diagnose, to really, deeply understand the problem first. (302)
- If you want to interact effectively with me, to influence me—your spouse, your child, your neighbor, your boss, your coworker, your friend—you first need to understand me. (302)
- You may say you care about and appreciate me. I desperately want to believe that. But how can you appreciate me when you don’t even understand me? All I have are your words, and I can’t trust words. (302)
- Empathic (from empathy) listening gets inside another person’s frame of reference. You look out through it, you see the world the way they see the world, you understand their paradigm, you understand how they feel. (302)
- In empathic listening, you listen with your ears, but you also, and more important, listen with your eyes and with your heart. You listen for feeling, for meaning. You listen for behavior. You use your right brain as well as your left. You sense, you intuit, you feel. (302)
- Empathic listening is critical to building trust (ie. making deposits in Emotional Bank Accounts), because nothing you do is a deposit unless the other person perceives it as such.
Diagnose Before You Prescribe
- Seek first to understand, or diagnose before you prescribe, (309)
- Before you make judgments or pronouncements, offer solutions, or give advice, you need to be able to fully diagnose the situation or understand where the other person is coming from.
Four Autobiographical Responses
- We frequently listen autobiographically, ie., we listen by relating the discussion to ourselves.
- Because we listen autobiographically, we tend to respond in one of four ways.
- We evaluate—we either agree or disagree;
- we probe—we ask questions from our own frame of reference;
- we advise—we give counsel based on our own experience;
- we interpret—we try to figure people out, to explain their motives, their behavior, based on our own motives and behavior.
- We need to learn to listen empathically
Four Developmental Stages of Empathic Listening
- Mimic Content
- Rephrase the Content
- Reflect Feeling
- Give Psychological Air
Stage 1: Mimic Content
- The first and least effective stage is to mimic content.
- the skill taught in “active” or “reflective” listening.
- Just listen to the words that come out of someone’s mouth and repeat them. (316)
- You have essentially repeated back the content of what was being said.
- You haven’t evaluated or probed or advised or interpreted.
- You’ve at least shown you’re paying attention to the other person’s words.
Stage 2: Rephrase the Content
- Rephrase the content
- It’s a little more effective (than stage 1), but it’s still limited to verbal communication.
- …you’ve put his meaning into your own words. Now you’re thinking about what he said, mostly with the left side, the reasoning, logical side of the brain. (317)
Stage 3: Reflect Feeling
- Reflect the feeling behind a person’s words back to them.
- You pay less attention to the literal content of the words and more attention to the way the person feels about what they are saying.
- This requires that you bring the right brain into operation. You need to bring your more imaginative, creative side into play.
Stage 4: Give Psychological Air
- As you authentically seek to understand, as you rephrase content and reflect feeling, you give the other person psychological air.
- Giving someone psychological air:
- Helps that person to work through their own thoughts and feelings.
- Helps to break barriers between words and feelings, and enables them to be vulnerable and willing to share their innermost thoughts and feelings.
- Turns a transactional opportunity into a transformational one. You communicate beyond the daily surface levels, and have more room to connect as people.
- The key is to genuinely seek the welfare of the individual, to listen with empathy, to let the person get to the problem and the solution at his own pace and time. Layer upon layer—it’s like peeling an onion until you get to the soft inner core. (320)
- The skills will not be effective unless they come from a sincere desire to understand. People resent any attempt to manipulate them. In fact, if you’re dealing with people you’re close to, it’s helpful to tell them what you’re doing. (321)
Then Seek To Be Understood
- Seek first to understand… then to be understood. Knowing how to be understood is the other half of Habit 5, and is equally critical in reaching Win/Win solutions. (324)
- Seeking to understand requires consideration; seeking to be understood takes courage. (324)
- Win/Win requires consideration (listening) and courage (being understood). You need to be brave enough to speak up and make your ideas and feelings known.
- In order to be understood, you must use ethos (integrity, credibility), pathos (feelings) and logos (logic) (in that order) to make a compelling presentation.
- Ethos, Pathos, and Logos.
- your personal credibility, the faith people have in your integrity and competency. It’s the trust that you inspire, your Emotional Bank Account.
- empathy; feeling. You are in alignment with the emotional thrust of another person’s communication.
- the logic, the reasoning part of the presentation.
- Sequencing matters: ethos, pathos, logos – your character, your relationships, and then the logic of your presentation.
- When you can present your own ideas clearly, specifically, visually, and most important, contextually—in the context of a deep understanding of other people’s paradigms and concerns—you significantly increase the credibility of your ideas. (327)
One On One
- As you practice Habit 5, because you really listen, you become influenceable. i.e. open to the other person’s point of view. And being influenceable is the key to influencing others. Your Circle of Influence begins to expand.
- You increase your ability to influence many of the things in your Circle of Concern.
- And if you’re highly proactive, you can create opportunities to do preventive work.
- Spend time with your children now, one on one. Listen to them; understand them.
- Go out with your spouse on a regular basis. Have dinner or do something together you both enjoy. Listen to each other; seek to understand. See life through each other’s eyes. (328)
- The time you invest to deeply understand the people you love brings tremendous dividends in open communication. (329)
- In business, you can set up one-on-one time with your employees. Listen to them, understand them. Set up human resource accounting or stakeholder information systems in your business to get honest, accurate feedback at every level: from customers, suppliers, and employees. (329)
- When you listen, you learn.****
New Insights On Habit 5: Seek First To Understand, Then To Be Understood By Sean Covey
- You don’t need to use Habit 5 all the time. Use Empathic Listening when the topic is important, sensitive, or really personal.
- A good rule of thumb is to use empathy any time emotions are high.
- You don’t need to do it in casual conversation or everyday small talk.
- Habit 5 is the habit most people think they do well—but actually do the worst.
- They listen with an agenda and with the intent to respond, not to understand. They never get into the other person’s head. And they miss out on so much, including not uncovering core issues and never fully engaging people’s hearts as they could. (332)
- Listening empathically gets even harder when you’re in a leadership position, because people tend to defer to authority. (333)
- Resolving a conflict isn’t actually the goal of Empathic Listening. Understanding is the goal.
- People will sense immediately if Empathic Listening isn’t genuine. You need to have good intent, not just the skill.
- Seeking first to understand another person makes you vulnerable because you may learn some things that are threatening to you.
- To genuinely practice Habit 5, you may need the emotional security that comes from first winning the Private Victory.
How to Apply Habit 5
- Try not to listen with the intent of responding or relating to something about yourself. Listen to understand.
- Next time you catch yourself inappropriately using one of the autobiographical responses—probing, evaluating, advising, or interpreting—try to turn the situation into a deposit by acknowledgement and apology.
- (“I’m sorry, I just realized I’m not really trying to understand. Could we start again?”) (330)
- Ask questions. Ask different types of questions that help you to better understand another person’s perspective, opinions, or feelings. After asking the questions, deeply consider and listen to what the other person is really saying.
Read the whole series
Habit 1: Be Proactive
Habit 2: Begin With the End in Mind
Habit 3: Put First Things First
Habit 4: Think Win/Win
Habit 5: Seek First to Understand, Then to Be Understood
Habit 6: Synergize
Habit 7: Sharpen the Saw
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