7 Habits – Habit 5: Seek first to understand then to be understood

Stephen Covey's Habit 5 of Highly Effective people looks at seeing things from someone else's perspective. If we are to be able to have a meaningful conversation with someone we first need to understand their needs and frame of reference - only then can we achieve a Win/Win outcome. If you want to get along better with others, or are following Covey's steps then this post can help you improve your dealings with other people, become a more effective communicator and achieve the outcome you want.
7 Habits [2008] : Habit 5: Seek first to understand then to be understood
Please Note: This post may contain affiliate links. By clicking on these links you will not be charged any extra for purchasing goods and services from our preferred partners however may receive financial compensation which contributes to the running of the site.

It’s been a while since we looked at Steven Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. It was meant to be a weekly series but I’m having trouble getting through a chapter a week, not very effective is it?

To recap what we’ve covered before, we’ve looked at:

So, if you’re new to the principles of 7 Habits, the above should give you a nice round-up of what it’s all about.

Now we move on to Habit 5 – “Seek first to understand then to be understood”

This chapter centres around the understanding of the other person – what they want, need and aspire to as well as what their motivations and mindset are.

Covey sets out in Habit 5 to change the way we interact with people by changing the way  that we listen to them. We need need to be non-judgemental and not make assumptions (assume makes an ASS of of U and ME remember!).

In order to reach a Win/Win situation (See Habit 4) and be able to influence people and the outcome we need to understand the other person first. I have to admit I was a bit surprised that Covey uses the term “Influence”. To me it has sort of nasty, Machiavellian connotations; I think he really should have discussed a mutually beneficial outcome here (which he gets on to much later in the chapter) rather than jump right into the “benefits” of influencing people.

When we want to control or guide a situation into a mutually beneficial outcome, you can’t just use technique as this will seem cold, unfeeling and manipulative. Just think of Counsellor Troi in Star Trek: The Next Generation. When you think about it, she was a rubbish listener! Stock phrases such as “How does that make you feel?” seem hollow and automatic; they don’t really show that you feel empathy for the individual at all.

Habit 5 isn’t just about purely learning to listen to the other person though. It’s essentially the culmination of the techniques in the first 4 habits. These habits need to be in place and understood for you to be truly able to understand and then be understood.

Generally when we listen we don’t understand at all. We may think we do, but we don’t – as Covey points out. Usually, when we listen everything is “understood” within our own frame of reference, a sort of “been there, done that, bought the tee-shirt” mentality. Therefore when people have a problem, or ask for advice, we see it from our point of view not theirs; we’ve failed to understand completely.

Unless we understand them, we can’t help or influence the situation as we can’t see the world through their eyes. I guess that old saying of “In order to understand someone you have to walk 100 miles in their shoes” (or something like that) should be rephrased slightly!

Covey goes on to describe 5 different types of listening styles. Generally, we only use one of the first four however the 5th is the one that we should be using:

  1. Ignoring – The “La La La, I can’t hear you” fingers in the ears school of listening
  2. Pretending – The “Uh huh, Oh really? That’s nice” school of listening
  3. Selective Hearing – The “But I’m sure I heard you say…” school of listening
  4. Attentive – The “I know exactly how you feel, when that happened to me…” school of listening
  5. Empathic – The “And how does that make you feel*?” school of listening

* Although not using that exact phrase maybe!

Empathic listening isn’t about agreeing with the other person, it’s about understanding them emotionally, behaviourally, physically (i.e. body cues) and intellectually. You full understand their motivations and where they’re coming from and this is key to building up your emotional bank account with this person. Using any of the other 4 listening techniques could (or should I say probably would) be seen as cold, uncaring and manipulative which leads to a withdrawal from your emotional bank account.

Empathic listening gives the other person an emotional boost (Covey refers to this as “Psychological Air”), they start feeling better about themselves so feel better about you and begin to open up more; you’ve opened them up so you can problem solve (influence – bah! – as Covey puts it).

There is a downside to Empathic listening, you have the ability to be influenced as well as influence. Going back to my Star Trek analogy again, think about the number of times Troi was taken over, influenced etc. due to her empathic nature (can you tell I like Star Trek?). We need the foundations of habits 1, 2 and 3 to be able to avoid this influence – or only accept it if we’re happy with it.

As well of 5 ways of listening, there are 4 ways of responding to what we’ve heard:

  1. Evaluate – Do we agree or not?
  2. Probing – Asking questions
  3. Advising – Giving advice based on our own experiences
  4. Interpreting – Interpret their motives based on our own motives/behaviour

This is all well and good, but it doesn’t really help the person that we’re listening to, everything’s coming from our frame of reference not from theirs which is at the core of empathic listening.

There are 4 stages to empathic listening, each building on the one before it. So essentially you start at step one and as they open up more move to the next step:

  1. Mimic – Repeat what the other person said
  2. Rephrase – Rephrase their comments to show that you’ve understood
  3. Reflect – Put their feelings into words for them
  4. Rephrase and Reflect – Combine steps 2 and 3

When the other person’s response starts to get emotional – as it may do if you’re at stage 4 of empathic listening – you need to drop back down to step one so that you can begin to understand again the root cause of their problem and what needs to be done to reach a mutually beneficial outcome.

As well as understanding, we too need to be understood which is the second half of Habit 5. As Covey puts it “Seeking to understand requires consideration; seeking to be understood requires courage.” You need to base your desires around the other’s frame of reference and have the conviction to get your points across in a way that’s mutually beneficial to all parties.

Habit 5 sits right in the middle of our circle of influence. Many of the factors within this habit lie within our circle of concern – the area we’re aware of but can’t do anything about it – empathic listening allows us to move these items into our circle of influence so that we can do something about them.

It’s also important to remember that people don’t necessarily have to open up in order for you to have a deposit made into your emotional bank account. Just showing empathy and that you care should be enough.

The main thing to take note of here is that whatever you do, don’t push them and try to force them into opening up to you. This will most certainly lead to a withdrawal from your emotional bank account as you’ll actually seem cold, unfeeling and manipulative.

You also don’t have to wait for people to come to you with problems, or notice that they’re having an issue, you can be proactive and act before something comes up. For example, you could hold regular 1-2-1 meetings with your team members. Listening with empathy and understanding will greatly increase your emotional bank balance and inspire great loyalty amongst your staff.

What have I learned from this chapter?

I learned that all listening is not created equal. I also learned that I’m guilty of step 4 Attentive listening rather than being Empathic as I thought I was being.

I’ve also learned that just because we think we may have a solution to someone’s problem we shouldn’t verbalise this until we really understand where they’re coming from and what they want.

What am I going to do about it?

I’m really going to try and be a better listener. It’s going to be quite hard not to jump in and be judgemental without a frame of reference but I will try as much as I can.

It’s going to feel a bit awkward at first to use empathic listening – rephrasing other’s people’s sentences can have the unfortunate side effect of sounding sarcastic, and as I’m sarcastic by nature people may think I’m taking the mickey if I’m not too careful.

If you see me with a black eye you know it didn’t go too well!

Interested in this book? Buy the 7 Habits of highly effective people from Amazon today

7 Habits Of Highly Effective People (2008)

full course
  1. 7 Habits : An Overview
  2. 7 Habits: Habit 1 – Be Proactive
  3. 7 Habits: Habit 2 – Start with the end in mind
  4. 7 Habits: Habit 3 – Put first things first
  5. 7 Habits: The Public Victory Phase
  6. 7 Habits: Habit 4 – Think Win/Win
  7. 7 Habits – Habit 5: Seek first to understand then to be understood
  8. 7 Habits: Habit 6 – Synergise
  9. 7 Habits: Habit 7 – Sharpen The Saw : Principles of balanced Self-Renewal

Subscribe to our mailing list

Join Hundreds of readers who have access to exclusive downloads and content



    You actually make it seem so easy together with your presentation but I find this matter to be actually one thing which I believe I would never understand.
    It kind of feels too complex and extremely
    broad for me. I’m taking a look ahead in your next
    post, I will attempt to get the hold of it!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *