Practice Habit 5: Seek First to Understand, Then to be Understood

Practice Habit 5

A common default of humans is to listen with the intent of responding. We like to have something to say, something to add. We each filter everything we hear through our life experiences, our frame of reference. We then check what we hear against our autobiography and see how it measures up. Consequently, we decide prematurely what the other person means before they finish communicating. Although well-intended, this response offers a solution without really trying to understand the problem or that individual’s perspective. Listening deeply to and trying to truly understand others takes some effort and practice, but the connection, growth, and negotiating power that you gain are truly worth it. 

Diagnosis Before Prescription

When a friend comes to you with an issue they’re having, how often do you respond with a story about your own similar experience and what you did to resolve it? We do this all the time in communication – prescribing a solution before diagnosing the problem. But think of how ridiculous this response would be in another context.

Picture this example: Imagine you go to the eye doctor because you’re having trouble with your vision. You start to explain your problem to the optometrist, and she quickly takes her own glasses off her face and tells you to try them on. The glasses do nothing to help your vision, but when you tell the doctor this, she insists the glasses work perfectly for her, so they should work for you too. No matter how hard you try, the glasses will not help your vision because they aren’t the correct prescription. 

Instead of prescribing prematurely, it’s important to learn how to truly listen to others. The essence of empathic listening is not that you agree with someone; it’s that you fully, deeply understand that person. Empathic listening is the key to making deposits into “Emotional Bank Accounts”, because nothing you do is a deposit unless the other person perceives it as such. You can work your fingers to the bone to make a deposit, only to have it turn into a withdrawal when they regard your efforts as manipulative, self-serving, intimidating, or condescending — because you didn’t understand what really mattered to them.

What does it mean to show Empathic Listening?

The best way is to mimic what the other person is telling you by rephrasing the content and reflecting the feeling. This gives the speaker psychological air and helps them work through their own thoughts and feelings. As they grow in confidence of your sincere desire to really listen and understand, the barrier between what’s going on inside them and what’s actually being communicated to you disappears. Once the speaker’s response is logical, then you can effectively ask questions and give counsel. But, the moment they fall back into emotion, you need to go back to empathic listening.

Instead of projecting your own autobiography and assuming thoughts, feelings, motives, and interpretation, you’re dealing with the reality inside another person’s head and heart. You’re listening to understand. You’re focused on receiving the deep communication of another human soul. Show this by rephrasing the content and reflecting the feeling of what the speaker is saying. It’s a paradox, in a sense, because in order to have influence, you have to be influenced. That means you have to really understand. Remember to diagnose before you prescribe.

Practice Habit 5- Seek First to Understand, Then to be Understood (PDF)

3 Replies to “Practice Habit 5: Seek First to Understand, Then to be Understood”

  1. Always love your blog comments!
    This one is for me today! It is NOT
    always about me! We’ve just been invited to dinner with two dear friends we haven’t been able to talk to for a long while! I pray we will be able to share some of our thoughts, but not capitalize on ourselves and children’s accomplishments!

  2. I have always considered my self as a good listener based on the feedback I receive from individuals who have confided in me. However, after reading this Practice Habit, I recognize I am not the good listener I thought myself to be because I didn’t practice empathetic listening. I did just as you said listen just long enough to diagnose a possible solution based upon my experience. Which I now understand what I thought was a deposit into their emotional bank account based on their feedback, could have turned into something all together different after they reflected upon the conversation. Thank so much in helping me to understand what it really means to listen and how to listen.

  3. Could these be made to be printable? Would love to be able to place in my planner and be able to read it over and over.

    Thank you!

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