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Habit 5 — Seek First to Understand, Then to Be Understood

Most people do not listen with the intent to understand. They listen with the intent to reply. They’re either speaking or preparing to speak.

Habit 5 is the habit of empathic communication, meaning you always seek to understand first, just like the doctor diagnoses before prescribing. When you truly seek to understand another, you build a foundation of trust where the other is also prepared to understand you. True, effective interaction and influence comes from this habit.

Covey uses five levels of listening to raise our awareness of the quality (or lack of it) of our listening skills. First, we may be ignoring the other, i.e., just not listening at all. Second, we may be pretending, i.e., nodding and making some sounds, but not really engaging at all. Third is selective listening, or zooming in on what we want to hear and completely missing what else has been said, so we only ever hear what we have almost already decided to hear (often used in sales, where they have been trained in techniques to pick up on certain words and circumstances). The fourth level is attentive listening, which is better than the others, as at least now I am hearing what you said and repeating your words back to you. However, very few of us ever use the fifth level, the highest form of listening: empathic listening.

Normally, we listen with the intent to reply. Empathic listening is about listening with the intent to understand, to really understand. With empathic listening (from empathy), you see the world the way the other person sees it. You understand their paradigms, their feelings. Communication experts say that only about 10% of our communication is represented by words, another 30% by sounds, and another 60% by body language. Covey says that with empathic listening you not only listen with your ears, but also with your eyes and heart. You listen for emotions and meaning, as you are dealing with the reality inside another person’s head and heart.

One of the greatest human needs is to be understood and appreciated. When you listen with empathy, Covey says, you are giving that person “psychological air,” as you are truly understanding them deeply, and to be understood at such a deep level is a profound experience. That experience builds a very strong and powerful relationship and understanding.

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