Habit 5: Seek First to Understand, Then to Be Understood®

The Habit of Empathic Communication

Communication is the most important skill in life. You spend years learning how to read, write, and speak. But what about listening? What training have you had that enables you to listen, so you really, deeply understand another human being? Probably none, right?

If you’re like most people, you probably seek first to be understood; you want to get your point across. In doing so, you may ignore the other person completely, pretend that you’re listening, selectively hear only certain parts of the conversation, or attentively focus on only the words being said but miss the meaning entirely. So why does this happen?

Because most people listen with the intent to reply, not to understand. You listen to yourself as you prepare in your mind what you are going to say, the questions you are going to ask, etc. You filter everything you hear through your life experiences, your frame of reference. You check what you hear against your autobiography and see how it measures up. Consequently, you decide prematurely what the other person means before they finish communicating. Do any of the following sound familiar?

You might be saying, “Hey, wait a minute. I’m just trying to relate to the person by drawing on my own experiences. Is that so bad?” In some situations, autobiographical responses may be appropriate, such as when another person specifically asks for help from your point of view or when there is already a very high level of trust in the relationship.

Seek First to Understand

Because you so often listen autobiographically, you tend to respond in one of four ways:

  • Evaluating: You judge and then either agree or disagree
  • Probing: You ask questions from your own frame of reference
  • Advising: You give counsel, advice, and solutions to problems
  • Interpreting: You analyze others’ motives and behaviours based on your own experiences
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“If I were to summarize in one sentence the single most important principle I have learned in the field of interpersonal relations, it would be this: Seek first to understand, then to be understood.”

— Dr. Stephen R. Covey

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Habit 5: Seek First to Understand, Then to Be Understood®

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