Habit 5: Seek First To Understand, Then To Be Understood

Seek First to Understand

I’m guessing you know what it’s like to be in the middle of expressing yourself to someone, only to realize that this person is already planning a reply in their head instead of listening to you.

Frustrating, right? And chances are, you’ve been on the other side of that situation, too. A person starts talking and before they’re done, you’ve decided you know what point they’re making and you go into rebuttal mode, mentally, so that you can be prepared to respond.

It’s impossible to have a good conversation this way. When we’re hyper-focused on being understood — making our point, dispensing advice, winning the argument, adding our opinion, searching our mental database for a comparable experience from our own life to map onto what someone’s sharing…we cannot possibly respond effectively. Other people see right through this. They leave conversations feeling unseen, unheard, uncared-for. Our advice rings hollow. We’ve missed an opportunity for true connection.

Which brings us to MY FAVORITE HABIT, Habit 5: Seek First to Understand, Then to Be Understood.

(Note: This is a continuation of my series of posts on the habits outlined in THE 7 HABITS OF HIGHLY EFFECTIVE PEOPLE, a personal development/business book that has been on my to-read list for ages and which I finished earlier this month. I think all of the strategies in this book can help with stress management and reducing vulnerability to burnout. Find previous posts here on my blog: http://pxlme.me/2gLl6y5A.)

Habit 5 is all about listening. Many of us think we know how to listen, but it’s not just about hearing the words someone’s saying. It’s about paying close attention to all cues — body language, tone of voice, subtext, what’s not being said vs. what is. It’s about how generously we remain present with the person, how well we’re able to see things THROUGH THEIR EYES, rather than attempting to translate everything into an experience we’ve had ourselves.

Covey has an example in the chapter on Habit 5 where he maps out two conversations between a teenage son and his father. The teenager is thinking about dropping out of school. Covey imagines the conversation going two ways: in the first example, the father immediately jumps into fix-it mode, talking about his own experiences, then shaming and judging the teen, blind to how his own anxiety is framing the interaction (and shutting the kid down big time). In the second example, the father listens, is nonreactive, restates what the teen is feeling, sometimes in a slightly more nuanced way to show that he’s getting it, that he’s hearing the anxieties and worries the teen is sharing. Needless to say, the conversations end very differently. In the first example, the teen stops talking to the dad and decides he’s not going to confide in him about this issue further. In the second example, the teen ends up reconsidering his own impulse to drop out of school, in part because the dad gave him space to talk through what was happening.

There are times when sharing from our own autobiography can be helpful. Sometimes people ask for direct advice. But so much of the time, being a good listener is not about trying to translate another person’s experience into something you’ve faced, or making it about you and your feelings — it’s about imagining what they are feeling right now.

When it comes to conflict, it turns out that seeking first to understand IS ESSENTIAL TO BEING UNDERSTOOD. You have to give to get. You also have to know what matters to the person you’re in conflict with so that you can figure out how you really feel and what you want to express.

These are the four response traps Covey identifies:

 Evaluating: You judge and then either agree or disagree. “I think you’re wrong about that.”

 Probing: You ask questions from your own frame of reference. “What did you do at school? Really, that’s it? What else? I’m sure you didn’t spend all day talking to Joe about basketball…”

 Advising: You give counsel, advice, and solutions to problems. “You should try yoga. I know someone who cured their back pain that way.”

 Interpreting: You analyze others’ motives and behaviors based on your own experiences. “You obviously don’t care about your dog if you’re willing to leave him home alone all day.”

Instead, try:

💚  Slowing down: Pause before you speak.

💚 Observing nonverbal cues: What facial expressions do you notice? Are the person’s arms crossed? Is she close to tears?

💚 Listening for what’s NOT being said: This is tricky, but with practice it’s key to good communication. Can you read between the lines and ask clarifying questions? “I notice you haven’t mentioned how I yelled at you yesterday and I wonder if you’re still thinking about that.”

Let me know how this works for you! Habit 5 can be applied in so many contexts: with your patients, with coworkers, with children, with your partner…the possibilities are endless 🙂  And it’s worth the effort. Relationships thrive when you seek first to understand.