“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,” writes Stephen Covey in the Seven Habits of Highly Effective People.

Seek first to understand is a gift we can give those we care about. Next to physical survival, Stephen observes, the greatest need of a human being is psychological survival: to be understood, to be affirmed, to be validated, to be appreciated.

It involves a deep shift in paradigm, Stephen writes: “For many, seek first to understand becomes the most exciting, the most immediately applicable of the Seven Habits.”

Doing so involves improving how we listen.  Listening is a fundamental skill for life success and yet we receive no training or education on how to listen.  With practice, we enable ourselves to listen so that we deeply understand another human being.  

Yesterday, we looked at the four levels of listening:

1. Ignoring

2. Pretending – “Yeah, uh-huh, right…”

3. Selective listening – paying attention to certain parts of what is being said

4. Attentive listening – paying attention and focusing our energy on the words being said

The fifth level is what Stephen calls “Empathic Listening.”  Think: a turbo-charged version of active listening.  We aim to step inside of the other person, to see the world as they see it.

Empathetic listening involves listening with the intent to understand; to get inside another person’s frame of reference; to see the world the way they see it; to understand how they feel.

To listen empathically, we must first become aware of our four hard-wired, autobiographical responses:

1. To evaluate.  Do we agree or disagree with what they are saying?

2. To probe.  When we play “20 questions” we control and invade.  Stephen notes constant probing is one of the main reasons parents do not get close to their children.

3. To advise.  We counsel based on our experience.

4. To interpret.  We explain other’s motives based on our own motives.

Empathic listening takes a different approach and involves four development stages:

1. We start by mimicking content.  This skill is taught in “active listening” where we listen to the words and repeat them. Why start here?  Because it prevents us from evaluating, probing, advising, and interpreting.

2. The next stage involves rephrasing the content.  We put their meaning into our words.  While this approach is better than #1 above, we are still trying to understand on the basis of words alone.  Only 10 percent of our communication is in the words we say.  The other 90 percent is represented by our tone (30%) and our body language (60%).

3. Next, we seek to reflect feeling.  We pay attention to what the other person is feeling about what they are saying.

4. Finally, we rephrase content and reflect feeling.  The impact is to give the other person “psychological air.”  Trust is created as the barrier between what’s going on inside in the person and what’s being communicated disappears.  With empathetic listening, we listen not only with our ears, but with our eyes and our heart. 

We listen for feeling, for meaning, for behavior.  We sense.  We intuit.  We feel.

Instead of projecting our autobiography and assuming thoughts, feelings, motives, and interpretations, we deal with the reality inside another person’s head and heart.  

We are listening to understand.


Reflection: Think back on a recent conversation that went wrong.  What role did I play?  Did I fall into any of the traps outlined above?

Action:  Look for an opportunity today to practice empathic listening.

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