Seek First To Understand

It was Stephen Covey who said "Seek first to understand, then to be understood" in his excellent book "The seven habits of highly effective people". The reason it's such valuable advice is that it's counter-intuitive and so don't naturally do it.

The trap we usually fall into when trying to get someone to understand us, to see things from our point of view, is to keep talking. "Let me explain...", "What you need to understand is..." and so on. We get so desperate to make the other person understand that we stop listening to them altogether and just keep trying harder and harder by talking at them.

The key to having someone listen and hence understand us is to start by shutting up! Stop talking, listen, ask brief qualifying questions. Dig deeper, asking how or when or who or what until the other person has finished. When they are finished, you'll see and hear a calmness that indicates they feel you have listened.

The key is to restrain the natural tendency to dive in early and start giving your point of view or opinion on what the other person is saying. Keep in your mind "am I listening to understand, or listening to respond?". If you feel you're just waiting for a split-second pause to get in and say your piece... you've fallen into listening to respond. Relax, listen, don't interrupt, ask only questions that seek further understanding.

Ideally you should paraphrase what they have said and check that you understand them: "So let me see if I understand you correctly, what you're saying is...". You might need to go around this once or twice but eventually the response you want is "Yes! That's it!" And now the other person truly feels understood. It's one of our deepest needs to feel understood and once someone truly feels that you understand them, the relationship moves on to a higher level.

Only when someone feels understood will they relax and listen to what YOU have to say. At this point you'll be given the opportunity to talk and be heard. You'll find the other person much more receptive and the communication is much easier.

The listening process described here is broadly described as empathic listening - listening with understanding and empathy. It has applications in selling, resolving disputes, staff 1-1s, team building, networking - many aspects of business and personal life. Empathic listening skills are very valuable - google it for further reading and start practicing. Seek first to understand, then to be understood.

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By: Rob Pickering

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