- Posted by Nigel Edelshain
- On August 7, 2015
This post is the fifth in a series summarizing the book the 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. I’m breaking the book down into 7 posts, one blog post per habit, and publishing one per week.
Today I’m covering habit #5, “Seek first to understand, then be understood.” This is the second habit in the book that deals with the interactions between people. Habits 1-3 are about our own internal “paradigms.”
Many people do not listen well. They do not listen to understand. They are listening and preparing their response for when it’s their turn to speak. They are either speaking, or preparing to speak, but not listening.
Typically we are listening at one of four levels:
- Ignoring: We’re not listening at all.
- Pretending: We say “uh-huh, right” but we’re not really tuned in.
- Selective listening: We hear part of what the person says but the rest of the time we’re distracted (maybe looking at our smartphone) or listening to the voice in our head (we all have one).
- Attentive listening: We’re actively listening, paying attention but not taking our listening to the ultimate level…empathetic listening.
Uh-huh, what’s this empathetic listening then?
Covey defines empathetic listening as listening with the intent to understand, to really understand. In order to really understand he says you need to get inside another person’s frame of reference. You need to see the world the way they see it, through their “lens.”
Most of us do not listen empathetically. What do is give “autobiographical” responses. What Stephen Covey means by this that we look into our own experience and tell others what to do based on what we have experienced in our life.
We do not take the time to understand the other person’s frame of reference. We advise them on how to proceed based on our frame of reference.
The other person does not have our “lens” so our prescriptions for them do not resonate for them. We have not made the effort to truly understand. We have prescribed without diagnosing. The other party can sense this and will very likely reject our advice.
In the book Covey uses an example of a father trying to talk to his son. The father is trying to help but the communication goes badly as the father advises the son based on the father’s experience without truly understanding how the son sees the situation.
There are skills that are needed to achieve empathetic listening, but Covey cautions that they’re skills only a fraction of what is needed to truly understand another person’s frame of reference.
We also need to have the true desire to understand the other person and have built up credit in their “emotional bank account,” meaning they trust us enough to open up.
There are four levels of empathetic listening:
- The first level of empathetic listening is to mimic content. It is essentially repeating back what the person says. Example: “I really can’t stand work!” You reply, “You can’t stand work.”
- The second level (more developed than the first) is to rephrase the content. Example: “I really can’t stand work!” You reply, “You’re not enjoying work.”
- The third stage (more developed still) is to reflect feeling. Example: “I really can’t stand work!” You reply, “You’re unhappy.”
- The fourth stage (highest level) is to rephrase the content and reflect the feeling. Example: “I really can’t stand work!” You reply, “You’re not happy at work.”
Covey says that if you authentically apply the fourth level of empathetic listening, the other person will open up to you. You will help them work through their thoughts and feelings. They will grow in confidence that you really are listening and will share deeper thoughts and emotions with you.
There is another caution in the book here, which is we should not treat these skills lightly. We should only apply them when we truly want to listen and listen deeply. If we abuse these skills the other person will sense that and it will strip their trust in us instantly. It could very damaging to our relationship.
Then be understood
90% of this chapter of the book is about understanding. When it is your turn to be understood, Covey says you will be understood if you have achieved the following:
- You have taken the time to truly understand the other person’s frame of reference.
- The other person trusts you based on your previous interactions.
- You present a good logical argument.
Being understood is quite simple from Covey’s point of view, but it’s rooted in a deep understanding of the other person.
You can read the other posts in this series here:
- Highly Effective Habit #1
- Highly Effective Habit #2: Begin with the end in mind
- Highly Effective Habit #3: First things first
- Highly Effective Habit #4: Think win/win