February 8, 2011

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

How many of us have had days where we can’t quite see eye to eye with anyone? A fight with our spouse or kids. A confrontation with the boss or a coworker. A business deal gone sour.

In my experience, it often boils down to communication or rather, poor communication. We talk at or over each other. Or if we can’t get a word in edgewise, we bide our time to interject our opinions and tit-for-tat responses. Or in anger and frustration, we say or do things we later regret and can’t take back.

But who really wins here? No one. As Habit 4 points out, adversarial conflict without a mutually beneficial resolution can quickly become a “lose-lose” proposition and a sure way to fail.

To reach “win-win” solutions in our interpersonal relations, we should look to Covey’s fifth habit: “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.”

Habit 5 teaches us how to listen with the intent to understand, not to listen with the intent to reply. Effective listening is not simply echoing what the other person has said through the lens of our own experiences. Rather, it’s listening sincerely with our ears, eyes and heart. It’s listening with empathy to understand the other person emotionally and intellectually. Only then can we seek to be understood.

Covey uses the Greek philosophy of ethos, pathos and logos to describe the sequence for effective communication at the heart of Habit 5:

  • Ethos: Establishing personal credibility, integrity and competency—character that inspires trust
  • Pathos: Listening with empathy; understanding others’ feelings and points of view
  • Logos: Explaining with logic and reason; considering all known facts and perceptions

Following this sequence allows us to present our ideas clearly, specifically, visually and in the context of the other person’s perspective and concerns. And in doing so, we significantly increase not only the credibility of our ideas, but also their positive influence and impact.

– Jim