In “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People,” author Stephen Covey chose Habit 5: “Seek First to Understand, Then to Be Understood” as the most important in interpersonal relationships.
We first introduced Covey’s 7 Habits in The Authentic You as a way to find our true North, become more effective, and write our own life’s story. The 7 Habits provide a map to cultivate your character based on a series of principles.
Covey makes the case that these principles are self-evident and endure in most religious, social, and ethical systems. They are universal in application, and when you value the correct principles, you see reality as it truly is.
That reality includes the relationship we have with ourselves. And, that relationship is so important because it drives all the others in our lives.
Dr. Robert Waldinger is the director of the Harvard Study of Adult Development, one of the most comprehensive studies in history. They followed teenagers from all walks of life into old age to see what really makes people happy and healthy.
What did they find? They learned that good relationships lead to health and happiness.
The Harvard Study of Adult Development
The longest study of adult life ever done is The Harvard Study of Adult Development. For 75 years, the lives of 724 men from different walks of life, are tracked each year. They were asked about their work, their home lives, and their health, without knowing how their life stories were going to turn out.
This is what they learned:
1. Social connections are good for us, and loneliness kills us. Those more socially connected to family, friends, to the community, are happier, and physically healthier. And, they live longer than less connected people.
2. It’s not the number of close friends or even a committed relationship, but the quality of your relationships that matters. Living amid good, warm relationships is protective.
3. Good relationships protect our bodies and our brains. The study showed that secure and attached relationships in your 80s are protective. Those who feel they can count on the other person have memories stay sharper and longer.
People simply want to matter. Everyone wants to be significant in some way and treated with the dignity and respect that follows.
According to Dr. Gordon Flett; “Mattering” is vital for health and well-being and is the root of resilience. Mattering is a form of welcoming the individual into the community of connection and companionship.
Helping people feel they matter is a key to their happiness and better relationships. And to matter, people must feel like they add value in ways that make them feel capable, important, and trusted according to Dr. Isaac Prilleltensky, professor and co-author of “How People Matter.”
“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
We can supercharge our relationships by letting others know you understand them and that they matter. So, how do we do that?
Seek First to Understand
Think of the hours you spend communicating every day. Now, how much time did you spend learning how to communicate well? What training did you receive on how to listen and understand another person? If you’re like me, little, if any.
For example, a 2015 study by The Academy of Management found that 76% of business schools set a goal on oral presentation; 22% on conversing; but only 11%, on listening. While research revealed listening is the most important of the three revealing misalignment between what is emphasized and what is needed.
Covey sees this misalignment in all walks of life and introduces the idea of “Empathic” listening to bridge this gap.
Active listening is an acquired skill where you are trained to show you are paying attention. Empathic listening, however not only shows you are paying attention but also truly understanding. Empathic listening requires understanding from their perspective, not yours.
Active listening is autobiographical. You are taught not to project your views, but that is still the motive to which you listen. You listened with reflective skills but responded from your perspective, not the other person’s.
Empathic listening puts you in the other person’s frame of reference. You listen and try to see the world as they see it with their emotions, experiences, feelings, and perspectives. You walk in their shoes.
A genuine desire to understand what the other person thinks doesn’t mean you agree, just understand. And, when you understand, it shows; interest, engagement, and care to the other person. You show them that they matter.
Five Levels of Listening
Covey’s view is captured well in Derek Gaunt’s post There Are 5 Levels of Listening:
“Most people who think they are good listeners underperform. There is some research that suggests they do so by as much as 60%. This overconfidence impedes their success as it prevents them from truly understanding the motivation of the other side. Nothing puts a relationship in jeopardy faster than poor listening.”
Levels 1 & 2 Are About Your Agenda
Level 1: Listening for the Gist: Simply listen long enough to get the gist of what they are saying. When you get the idea, you refocus on your internal voice and formulate a reaction. You may choose not to share the reaction but your internal dialogue is how it doesn’t line up with your view.
Level 2: Listening to Rebut: You listen long enough to understand the message until it hits a trigger, something you can argue against or rebut. You wait for the other side to stop so you can tell them why their position is wrong and, how much smarter you are.
At Levels 1 & 2 You are focused on your agenda at the expense of theirs. And, they will sense this. You are standing in the way of a good relationship.
In Levels 3-5 You Seek First to Understand
Level 3: Listening for Logic: You are trying to understand the internal logic of what is said. You’re genuinely working to see their view and understand why it makes sense to them.
Level 4: Listening for Emotion: You listen for emotions or issues behind their point of view. Even if it doesn’t make sense, you recognize the significance as they describe what’s important to them.
When you respond, identify the unstated issues you believe influence what they say. For example, you may say -you seem very passionate about this – in hopes they share more information.
Level 5: Listening for Their Point of View: Through empathy, you learn about who they are and invest in the effort to see things from their perspective. It takes time and effort to suspend your views and go beyond a cursory understanding of their views.
In Levels 3 through 5 You are focused on Habit 5: Seek First to Understand, Then to be Understood.
We Have to Get Out of Our Own Way
We must step aside and get out of the way to better understand the other person or we’ll never influence them.
Think of the hours you spend communicating every day. Now, how much time did you spend learning how to communicate well? What training did you get on listening and understanding another person? If you are like me, little, if any.
“If there is any one secret of success, it lies in the ability to get the other person’s point of view and see things from that person’s angle as well as from your own.”
– Henry Ford
We all lived with our paradigms for years, and they became our ‘facts.’ But the paradigms can be vastly different between people. We may even question the character or the competence of anyone who does not see “our” facts or truths.
Covey writes: “As you learn to listen deeply to other people, you will discover tremendous differences in perception. You will also begin to appreciate the impact that these differences can have as people try to work together in interdependent situations.”
We try to function, in a friendship, marriage, job, and community with differences. To do it effectively is to surpass the limits of our perceptions and understand others. Deep communication builds trust as we peel away layers to understand theirs.
Trust increases as we transcend perceptions and understand each other’s facts and truths.
The Island of Knowledge
Here is another way to think about this.
As adults, we think we are supposed to have it all figured out. That puts us at a real disadvantage.
Marcelo Gleiser’s metaphor “The Island of Knowledge” explains this well. I’ll paraphrase from his excellent book: “The Island of Knowledge: The Limits of Science and the Search for Meaning.”
Imagine that the total accumulated knowledge makes an island named the “Island of Knowledge.” The island includes all scientific, technical, cultural, and artistic creations of humankind. And a vast ocean surrounds the Island of Knowledge; the unexplored ocean of the unknown, with countless mysteries.
The island grows in size as we discover more about the world and ourselves. As the island grows its coastline; the jagged shore between the known and unknown also grows.
We might expect that the more we know about the world, the closer we get to a final destination. Ironically, as the Island of Knowledge grows so do the shores of our ignorance, as we also learn how much more is unknown.
As adults, we are also an island of knowledge and learn more over time. There is no final destination where we have it all figured out. Instead, it takes us to more questions, or it should. The more we know, the more we see there is to learn, and the more we need to Seek to Understand.
Habit 5: “Seek First to Understand, Then to Be Understood” helps us to see the world beyond our perspective and makes the knowledge and views of others more accessible to us.
This expands our limits as we learn and stay effective, and relevant.
Then to be Understood
If you want to influence others, anybody for that matter, you first need to understand them. Techniques like “Active” listening does not work. People sense duplicity or manipulation and then question your motives.
Instead, they watch the behavior that flows from your true character and the kind of person you are – not who you want them to think you are. Empathic listening is the required investment that inspires openness and trust.
There needs to be a realistic assessment of shared and different interests and conclusions. Understanding is the required diagnosis before you can prescribe something that will be understood.
Covey defines maturity as the balance between courage and consideration. Seeking to understand requires consideration and, seeking to be understood takes courage. A win-win requires a high degree of both.
Investing time in your empathic listening skills strengthens your personal character and creates genuine interest. It becomes a desire to see the world as another person sees it.
Ethos, Pathos, Logos
The early Greeks had a philosophy that embodied three powerful and sequential words: ethos, pathos, and logos. And, these words are the essence of Covey’s Habit 5: Seek first to Understand, Then to be Understood through effective presentations.
Greek philosopher Aristotle defined these three methods when he writes:
“Of the modes of persuasion furnished by the spoken word, there are three kinds. The first kind depends on the character of the speaker; the second on putting the audience into a certain frame of mind; the third on the proof, provided by the words of the speech itself.”
1) Ethos is the faith people place in your integrity and competence; the trust inspired by personal credibility. 2) Pathos is empathy, which shows you are in alignment with the emotions of another. 3) Logos is the reasoning part of your presentation.
Using all three is powerful because thoughts are more readily understood by others when you understand and are trusted. And, as you increase your ability to influence others your circle of influence expands.
As you practice understanding others, you appreciate them more, and they you more. It is really that simple.
Traffic Light Rule
Watch what happens as you reach your full potential of Habit 5: Seek First to Understand, Then to be Understood. As you influence others they influence you. All can change for the better.
This continuous cycle of growth and improvement requires the process to remain interactive to ensure the balance between courage and consideration. In turn, it assures an accurate diagnosis and caring prescription.
Career coach Marty Nemko created The Traffic Light Rule as a tool to keep you on track. The rule gives you about one minute to speak your mind and then turn the conversation back to someone else for you to listen to. He summarizes it this way:
“During the first 30 seconds of an utterance, your light is green: your listener is probably paying attention. During the second 30 seconds, your light is yellow—your listener may be starting to wish you’d finish. After the one-minute mark, your light is red: Yes, there are rare times you should “run a red light:” when your listener is obviously fully engaged in your missive.”
This rule ensures you remain interesting and not annoying. It provides a built-in time for consideration and courage to interact. We never think we talk too much or we would not do it. This safeguard assures we do not wear out our welcome!
In 1936 Dale Carnegie wrote the groundbreaking book on relationships, “How to Win Friends and Influence People.” It sold 30 million copies and is one of the best-selling books of all time.
The core idea is: “People are not interested in you…they are interested in themselves.” Carnegie describes how to use this insight to influence others to get what we want while giving others what they want in the process.
Become a Better Listener
Shane Parrish’s Farnam Street podcast “Become a Better Listener” with executive coach Carolyn Coughlin provides some helpful tips:
Listening is contagious: Consider asking different questions to yourself and others. “Who in my life asks the questions that are either different from mine, or the best?”
Avoid “Listening to Fix:” That is about making the problem disappear by either saying, they do not have a problem, or fixing it. Men tend to use this autobiographical method that creates a space without the understanding to bridge the gap.
Avoid “Listening to Win:” It is another autobiographical mode where you do not see the issue from the other person’s perspective. You see it from your frame of reference and try to convince them to see it your way so you win.
“Listen to Learn” Set aside your assumptions, open your mind, and ask clarifying questions to understand the other’s perspective as you Seek First to Understand.
How to Improve Emphatic Listening
1. Listen with your heart, it is more than understanding the words. Try to sense and feel where they are coming from.
2. Note other cues like tone of voice, and emotions.
3. Remain present and in the moment: Turn your phone off or place it face down. Give the other person the space and time to express themselves fully.
4. Show patience and avoid interrupting. They disrupt the flow and make the other person feel unheard.
5. Show you listen carefully and summarize what is said. Ask clarifying questions that ensure you fully understand.
6. Don’t try to fake it. Covey warns; …it will not be effective unless you come from a sincere desire to understand. People resent attempts to manipulate them.
7. Ask “How could I be wrong?” It takes us beyond our initial assumptions to ask other questions we may not ask.
Thanks for reading!
Covey’s Habit 4: Think Win-Win