Habit 5: Seek First to Understand Then to be Understood

Seek to understand, then to be understood. This is Habit 5 of Stephen Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People and it seems easy enough to do on the surface, but for many people, it can be a difficult habit to implement.

In this article, we will explore how you can use it in your daily life to build rapport and develop deep relationships.

What is the Meaning of Habit 5?

Habit 5: seek first to understand then to be understood is one of the habits developed by Stephen Covey in the book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.

Covey identified that in order to build deep relationships and lead with clarity, you need to first truly understand what people are both saying and feeling when in conversation. This is normally referred to as empathic listening.

Once you understand their story, then and only then you reply, based on what they have said. This avoids any preconceptions you may have, reduces the chance of conflict and allows you to listen intently, whilst developing respect and trust.

Most of Us Don’t Really Listen

The problem is that most of us don’t actually listen to others. We tend to think we know what the other person is going to say, and so our minds wander.

We can get caught up in our own internal world of thoughts, ego, judgements, and conclusions, often before that person has had a chance to express their view and problems. We are normally good at it too; often doing this within the first sentence of the conversation.

This problem is a common thing in life and also in the workplace.

During a conversation, how many times has your mind been on other things?

We can get caught up thinking about many topics and ideas:

There are many thoughts that churn through our minds during an average day. In fact, we have approximately 6200 thoughts per day. For most of us, they don’t stop when a loved one, a friend, colleague or even an employee wants to stop and talk.

The script keeps running.

So what happens when we focus on us, rather than the person we engage a conversation with?

It means that we may:

  • Ignore their message entirely;
  • We can quickly forget their name (if they are newly introduced);
  • Selectively engage, picking up on some element of the conversation, but taking things out of perspective;
  • Blatantly not listen and make matters worse.

The reality is that we all know if someone is listening to us or going through the motions.

Think back to a situation when you were talking to someone, and they weren’t present. How did it make you feel?

It probably made you feel angry and upset that they didn’t care what you had to say; or that their time and thoughts were more important than yours.

It’s safe to say that the above are not the foundations of building trust, commitment, rapport, respect, relationships.

These issues can also cause misunderstanding with people who matter most: our family members; friends…even employees at work where positive relationships lead directly towards better productivity levels, often cited by research studies like this one from Gallup.

It’s important that we master this skill.

That’s why habit 5: Seek first to understand, then to be understood is the second interpersonal habit of Covey’s 7 habits.

Empathic Listening With The Intent to Reply

Additionally, most people tend to listen with the intent to reply. As the conversation unfolds, the recipient is thinking of what they want to say next.

They are intent on remembering what to say and itching to say it.

But again, this approach means that you’ll miss the context of the conversation and will fail to grasp it entirely. Your focus is still on you and your own thoughts.

Poor listeners are either speaking or preparing to speak and don’t effectively seek first to understand.

4 Levels of Listening

Covey identifies four key levels of listening:

  1. Ignoring – We are just caught up in our own thoughts and don’t take anything in – we miss the point completely;
  2. Pretending – We’re still engaged in our own thoughts and nod and smile away. But it’s a façade; we haven’t grasped the conversation at all;
  3. Selective Listening – We pick out some of the conversation but not the whole thing, as we move from internal to a brief external focus, before returning to our own thoughts;
  4. Attentive Listening – We listen to it all and understand the context, the full conversation and its meaning. This is often referred to as empathic listening.

What Does it Mean to Seek to Understand?

The point is, we’re only really listening when we are listening attentively to that person, and we are responding to a frame of reference that the speaker has mentioned.

It means that we don’t talk much. We are not lost in our thoughts.

We don’t judge and pre-empt what they will say, and we definitely don’t jump in to immediately give our view.

We just listen. It’s simple really.

Covey suggests that good listening should be “active, not passive” and involve a lot of nodding by the listener, as if they were entering into an agreement with them (rather than just passively absorbing information).

“Our words represent us; our silence represents others,” He stated.

Seek first to understand means to truly listen to people when you engage in conversation. It consists of listening with a totally open mind, as if you were listening to what is being said for the first time.

So, listen.

Stop talking.

Silence your ego and agenda.

We call this active listening.

As we’ve written in our active listening guide, when you listen, you have one goal. That goal is to understand what the other person is really saying.

In doing so, you will often be amazed by what you hear. You will learn new perspectives, new insights, new ways of seeing things that you may have not seen before.

In order to build great meaningful relationships and interact effectively with people, listen actively and empathically.

Listen With an Intent to Understand

Seek first to understand everything the other person is communicating: their words and nonverbal signals alike. If you are empathizing correctly, then your attention will be focused on what they have said rather than projecting your own life story into theirs.

You cannot and should not move on to solving a person’s problem before satisfying the need for them to be understood by you.

The mark of a true professional is understanding.

Lawyers are excellent at innately using habit 5 seek first. They gather facts and prepare cases before presenting the final verdict to their clients – jumping to conclusions could be professional suicide.

Engineers understand forces in order to build bridges without breaking them – jumping to the verdict would cause lost lives.

So it’s important for all professionals at any level to seek first then to be understood – even in general conversation. After all, we’re building a habit here.

How to Practice Habit 5: Seek First to Understand then to be Understood

This is built around empathic listening. Here’s how to get started.

Step 1: Pay Attention

As we’ve highlighted in our previous article on active listening and the LAFF method, focus on listening to exactly what the other person is saying. Be in the moment. If you find your mind drifting on other things, bring it back to the present.

Remove all preconceptions, agendas, ideas. Just listen to what they say and what they mean. Observe their body language and tone.

Step 2: Repeat and Ask Questions

As you listen, repeat their words back to them. This helps reinforce a positive connection and trust.

And as you understand them, rephrase their conversation back to them so you can really get to grips with their point.

Doing this also helps prove that you are engaged in the conversation.

Step 3: Empathise

Empathising is the second step in empathic listening, and is the most important.

Simply take the cues from step one and truly understand how they are feeling and their exact position.

Why do they feel that way? What is the other person’s reason for feeling like this? How did they get into this position? Are they saying one thing but their body language says something different?

Step 4: Rephrase Their Content and How They Feel

This method reinforces the fact that you understand them. I remember waiting for an orthodontist for my daughter. We were given an appointment, but the surgeon who worked on her 4 months prior was never supposed to see her.

The actual orthodontist was supposed to discuss post surgery braces. The problem was that we were seeing the wrong person.

The surgeon realised this and simply said, “You must be frustrated that we’ve mixed up the appointment. I can only apologise. I will sort everything out personally. The next appointment you get will be to fit the braces.”

The first part of this sentence helped diffuse our frustration. He understood how we felt, and so we felt confident that it would get sorted by him.

Rephrasing the other person’s reference points by including what happened and how they feel, shows that we know what they are going through.

The key is to reflect their situation back to them.

Step 5: Now Act Based on The Situation

Now you know their stance, and have naturally built rapport by following the steps above, act accordingly to help them.

You can practice using framing conversations, to assist you, here. We’ve written an article on how to reframe conversations. Reframing allows us to acknowledge their situation and then move the focus onto something more positive, like taking action.

The reality is, it’s easy to converse once we really know their side of things. So, spend 90% of your time listening to those around you before talking!