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

“Satisfied needs do not motivate. It’s only the unsatisfied need that motivates. Next to physical survival, the greatest need of human beings is psychological survival—to be understood, affirmed, validated, and appreciated.” —Stephen R. Covey

Theodore Roosevelt is credited for saying, “Nobody cares how much you know until they know how much you care.” That statement couldn’t be truer. If you want to influence someone, you had better be someone they can believe and trust. That trust must be planted and nourished with sincerity. It all starts with listening to truly understand the person so that you can develop empathy for them.

To feel empathy is to identify psychologically with another person—to place yourself in their position and vicariously feel their thoughts, feelings, or attitudes. If they know that you care enough to understand what they feel, they will trust you with more of themselves—more of their concerns, feelings, ideas, and dreams. If they feel like they can be open with you, they will be far more open to you and your input.

“When you listen with empathy to another person, you give that person psychological air. And after that vital need is met, you can focus on influencing or problem solving.” —Stephen R. Covey

As you listen with empathy and come to know them, you’ll be able to share your knowledge, experiences, and advice in terms that speak to their true issues. If you aren’t listening with empathy you’ll hear what they say, project your own experiences into their story, and jump to conclusions that don’t fit—like an eye doctor who simply hands you his own glasses rather than diagnosing your unique problem.

How do we listen to diagnose?

It’s uncommon for people to tell you what they’re thinking and feeling—what’s really going on in their heads. Think of the last time someone asked you, “Hey! How’s it going?” Chances are you said, “Fine,” even if things weren’t going fine. You knew that he or she wasn’t interested in having a real conversation, they were simply saying, “Hello, I see you there and don’t want you to think I’m a jerk by not acknowledging you. Now I must be going.” Because you understood that, you didn’t bother to answer their question.

If you truly are interested in knowing what’s going on inside someone’s head, you need to prove it to them. According to The Seven Habits Of Highly Effective People, communications experts estimate that only 10 percent of our communication is represented by the words we say. Another 30 percent is represented by our sounds, and 60 percent by our body language.

 “In empathic listening, you do listen with your ears, but more importantly you also listen with your eyes and with your heart. You listen for feeling, for meaning. You listen for behavior. You use your right brain as well as your left. You sense, you intuit, you feel.” —Stephen R. Covey

Take notes about your conversations with others.

People will be more interested in what you have to offer if you first show interest in them and really seek to understand them. This trait manifests well when you remember details that they share with you. It shows that you are listening. It means even more when you remember those details from one conversation to the next and ask about the things they were interested in the last time you spoke. To help you develop this skill, we suggest that you take notes.

Don’t take notes in front of them, of course, but after your conversation is over jot down as many details as you can remember in your planner. Don’t just write about what they said, but also take note of things they didn’t say—their behaviors that may have been speaking louder than their words. Review those details often so the next time you meet, you can pick up where you left off. This will strengthen their trust as they realize that you are more interested in what makes them who they are and far less interested in serving any sort of agenda.

If you are in a profession that puts you in front of people often, like sales, use our Client File to strengthen your communication skills. It’s designed to help you track each conversation you have with a specific client, note when it took place, and list specific details you want to remember.

Every day is a great time to practice listening with empathy.

When you seek first to understand before you try to be understood, you realize it’s less important to be right and more important to be kind. Listening with your eyes and heart creates a great platform for empathy and validation. It’s the kind of communication where love grows. It may be the best gift you could ever give.


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Habit 5. Seek first to understand. Then to be understood.

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5 Replies to “Habit 5: Seek First to Understand, Then to Be Understood”

  1. Thank you for refocusing my empathy in listening to others. This skill could make my world a more compassionate and caring place

  2. This is a great reminder of a classic best practice in communications and emotional intelligence…Seek first to understand and then to be understood.” In these volatile times it is crucial that we have leadership that seeks to listen to understand and not just to reply. It is after all the principle of highly effective people.

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