Stephen Covey – in his insightful book, ‘The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People’ – said “Seek first to understand, then to be understood”.

The reason its such valuable advice is that it’s counter-intuitive and so most people don’t do it. And yet, how much more ‘effective’ would we be as individuals – the clue, clearly, is in the title of the book – if we were to follow the advice and make that a habit?

Most people, when trying to get someone else to understand us, or to see things from our point of view, just keep talking, i.e. “Let me explain…”, “What you need to understand is…” etc etc. The majority of people don’t even realise what they are doing, it’s just that they’ve fallen into a bad ‘habit’. So desperate are we to make the other person understand, that we stop listening to them altogether, and just keep ploughing on – trying harder and harder by talking at them more and more.

Stop talking. Listen. Understand.

Ideally, digging deeper – asking how, or when, or who, or what, until the other person has finished is what we should be doing. When they are finished, you’ll see and hear a calmness that indicates they feel you have listened. That’s powerful – but, yet, it’s very rarely done. That power comes from having the knowledge of what to do. Knowledge, in itself, isn’t power – as a lot of ‘misguided’ (control freaks) people would have you believe – but knowing what ‘to do’ with that knowledge is very powerful (as explained so eloquently in Napoleon Hill’s classic – Think and Grow Rich).

And so, to the explosion of video conferencing during the Covid-19 pandemic, and the relevance to a book first written thirty years ago.
Habit number five – Seek first to understand, then be understood. 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, and don’t interrupt – ask only those questions that seek further understanding. Most of these conversations occur between two people. Even in a busy networking setting, these conversations always take place between two people, regardless of the murmur of chat going on around them. And we already know that the majority of people ‘listen to respond’. So, what if we could alter the setting, such that everyone else listened to these conversations? How would that affect people’s behaviours? How uncomfortable would that be?

Strangely, that’s exactly what’s happened with the increase in online meetings. There are still many people there at the ‘gathering’, only now, everyone else IS listening!! Suddenly, now we know other people are listening to our conversations, it becomes a little uncomfortable to ‘speak’ as we normally would. Indeed, good manners come to the fore when in this setting and rarely do we see people speaking over other people (and we’d mute them if they tried !!). Courtesy appears to be the new watchword – maybe because chaos ensues in this arena if it is missing – and with this courtesy, we actually allow other people to finish speaking before we ‘dive in’. We actually LISTEN to them.

Going back, momentarily, to ‘normal’ conversations between two people in a non-virtual setting. Ideally, you should paraphrase what’s been said back to the other person, in order to check that you understood them: “So let me see if I understand you correctly, what you’re saying is…”. It may be that 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 is 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.

Further, 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. Zoom, Google Chat, Skype etc etc, with multiple people in attendance is witnessing these kinds of behaviours. Isn’t that interesting?
The current pandemic is a truly horrific time for people all around the world. It has forced a lot of people to review their working practices, one of which is the huge dependence on video conferencing, video meetings, webinars etc. Has this medium finally brought into sharp focus Stephen Covey’s fifth habit – Seek first to understand, and then be understood?

The listening process described here is broadly described as empathic listening – listening with understanding and empathy. If we can master it, it has applications in sales, dispute resolution, team 1-1s, team building, networking – in so many aspects of business and personal life. How much better would life be – personally and professionally – if we could make this our new ‘habit’. It may not have been the way we chose to get to this point, but seriously ………

Seek first to understand, then to be understood. You’ll be so glad you did.