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Seek First to Understand, then to be Understood

There is a common tendency to just listen for a few seconds, and then judgmentally blurt out an advice. Although we haven’t even carefully looked at someone else’s situation, we tend to associate other people’s problems with our own experiences. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? But how helpful is such advice? In the ‘5th habit of highly effective people’ Covey explicitly puts a focus on listening with the heart: Seek first to understand, then to be understood.

How we listen incorrectly

Covey explains that we can change our interaction with people by changing the way we listen to others. We shouldn’t be judgmental and associative. Instead, we first need to understand others in order to reach a Win-Win situation (habit 4). Many leaders mistake talking for listening, even though listening is one of the most essential characteristics a leader could have. When people answer with something resembling “I went through the very same thing, let me tell you about my experience”, these people actually project their own situation onto someone else, instead of truly listening. How can you understand someone else within a few words and reply with an entire story?

Simple: you can’t. Instead, giving your employees the feeling that you (as a leader) are truly listening, has great impact. Once an employee has the feeling that you are really listening, this person will ask you what your opinion is. This person will want to know if you had similar experiences and how you acted. Isn’t this exactly what you need as a leader?

Empathic Listening

To truly understand others, empathic listening – as Stephen Covey calls it – is essential. Empathic listening is listening with the intent to understand the other person’s frame of reference and feelings. Empathic listening is not about agreeing someone else, it is about truly understanding what message the other is trying to convey. Therefore, you must listen with your ears, your eyes and your heart. It takes time to make this shift to empathic listening, but it doesn’t take nearly as long as it does to correct misunderstandings.

Truly Understanding Others

By trying to understand and by giving someone your full attention, you can discover the paradigms through which this person views the world. Only then, can you try to help someone with their problems and work together more effectively. Empathic listening is likely to give the other person an emotional boost, because isn’t it the greatest need of a human being to be understood, affirmed, validated, and appreciated?

When we truly understand others, we can start seeking to be understood by others. Because if we are able to communicate ourselves in the context of a deep understanding of others, we significantly increase credibility. Thus, take Covey’s advice in your daily communication with others: seek to understand first, and then to be understood! Good luck!

You’ve spent years of your life learning how to read and write, years learning how to speak.

But what about listening?

– Stephen Covey


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