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How to Listen First: A Summary of Habit 5 of 7 Traits of Highly Effective People

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Sid Kemp is a business consultant and author of 10 books on project management and business success.

In The Seven Habits, a Practical Summary,  Habit 5 is "Seek First to Understand, Then to Be Understood." Here's how to listen successfully.

In The Seven Habits, a Practical Summary, Habit 5 is "Seek First to Understand, Then to Be Understood." Here's how to listen successfully.

Success Through Listening

If you think about it, we succeed in life through listening. On a personal level, people love to be listened to. So, if we listen to them, they feel understood, and they like and appreciate us. On a business level, listening is often the key to success.

How Listening Can Help a Person Succeed

  • A waiter or waitress listens closely, gets the orders right, takes care of the customers, and makes bigger tips.
  • A psychologist or any other care professional helps people—and succeeds professionally—by listening and understanding.
  • A computer programming or web design services company succeeds more by listening to the customer to give them what they really want than by delivering a canned solution.
  • An effective salesperson or negotiator succeeds more by listening and using what he understands than by pushing to close the deal.

I am a professional trainer, and my wife is a college professor. Even though we make a living by speaking, we succeed in speaking and teaching by listening.

In The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, author Stephen Covey explores this principle for effective living and offers techniques for genuine listening in Habit 5: Seek First to Understand, Then to Be Understood.

There's Listening . . . and Then There's Really Listening

Seek first to understand means a lot more than just letting the other person talk first. Most of the time, when we're listening, we start thinking about what we want to say while the other person is still talking. So we're only half-listening, at best. Or, when we listen, we assume that the other person thinks the way we do. Or we really want to understand, but we just don't have the patience and skill to really understand how differently the other person thinks.

To understand other people, we will have to stop listening from and living out of our own stories.

Four Things That We Do That Are Not Really Trying to Understand

Even when we mean well and we want to understand, we often do these four things, which are not about understanding at all:

  1. We evaluate, responding from our own judgment.
  2. We probe, pushing with words to get a response, coming more from our own need to understand and control and less from an unadulterated desire to help.
  3. We advise, giving counsel from our own experience.
  4. We interpret, trying to make sense of others from our own experiences.

Genuine understanding can't come from any of these, because they are all autobiographical. That is, we are caught in our own story. We cannot understand others through the lens of our own story. To really understand, we have to drop our own story and truly hear their story.

Having practiced the first three habits, we've developed self-awareness. Now, knowing who we are, we can let go of ourselves and listen without interpreting through the lenses of our own past and our own worldview. We can be genuinely present, attentive, and compassionate. That is seeking first to understand.

To be truly successful, you must learn the skill of deep listening: How often do we truly listen?

To be truly successful, you must learn the skill of deep listening: How often do we truly listen?

Yes, It's Worth the Work

This deep listening, this seeking first to understand—and to make sure that we are understood—is a lot of work. It takes a lot longer than just going in and asking for what we want.

But it's worth it. I speak from my own experience here. My wife and I fell into a period of difficulty and misunderstanding that lasted over 15 years. We stuck through things that others would have divorced over, four times or more. And we healed our marriage into a place of love and understanding that few couples ever experience. From that, we've become a pillar of strength for others.

I hope a life of love and understanding comes more easily for you than it did for me and my wife. But, in work, or in family life, it always pays off, as long as both people are willing to do the work. If we, or the other person, are not willing to do the work, then we fall back to Habit 4: Win-Win or No Deal. And No Deal is the best option.

What makes seeking first to understand worth it? The alternative is trying to solve things before we understand them. That's like popping pills without a diagnosis. Ultimately, we get sick. The wrong solution makes things worse and costs more in the long run.

Habit 5: Seek First to Understand, Then to Be Understood: A Recipe for Understanding Others

Here is a recipe for the way of listening that leads to really understanding so that we can be understood. Being understood, we can help, and we can also ask for what we want.


"The key is to genuinely seek the welfare of the individual" (7 Habits, p. 252), so we must set our own agendas and perspectives aside.


If we are speaking to a stranger, and even more, if we are speaking to a loved one who has not experienced us listening well until now, we can't expect just to jump in and listen and say the right thing and make everything better. Dr. Covey recommends we prepare by building these three things:

  • Develop the pure desire to help others without "hypocrisy or guile" (7 Habits, p. 252)
  • Strengthen our own character by being aware of your own desires and biases and cultivating the patience to give before we receive
  • Build an emotional bank account by being honest, making and keeping commitments, and expressing gratitude, love, and caring. That way, if things become difficult as you try to break through the barriers of misunderstanding, the other person will have a basis of experience that will give them a reason to trust you and keep working with you.

Setting the Stage

If we've had poor communication and a strained relationship in the past, then it is best to acknowledge that, apologize, and explain that we are making an effort. We may even want to say that we are reading a book and learning how to listen better. And best to say that we'll keep making mistakes, but we're committed.

Cooking Up a Healthy Relationship

Just as cooking requires chopping, mixing, and heating, so deep listening requires:

  • clear understanding of the details
  • reflecting back the ideas
  • and empathic reflection of the feeling

Moment by moment, we listen first, then show our understanding of the content of what the person is saying and our compassion for how the other person is feeling. When the person expresses a feeling, we share a sense of caring and understanding without claiming to understand perfectly.

When the person states an idea, we reflect the idea back to them in our own words and ask if we've got it right. We stay with the other person's thoughts and feelings and allow ourselves to be corrected all the way through.

Our own caring and trust get reflected back, and the person asks us to help them think things through. People want very much to be understood. People very much want help. But just about everyone has the experience that others do not understand us and that they have their own judgments and agendas.

If we become a person who can really understand, then we can give other people the experience that they've needed for long years—an experience of genuine love and understanding. I don't have children myself, but Stephen Covey and others who have children and work with them that children are actually eager to be understood by adults, especially by their parents.

The Courage to Seek to Be Understood

Seeking to be Understood means more than seeking to be understood when genuinely helping others.

It also means having our own viewpoint heard. And if the other person will not hear us, or cannot understand us, or does not agree to include our needs, passions, and goals in the equation, then we need the courage to move to No Deal, because working with that person is not a win for us.

If we are honest about much of how the world works today—and throughout history—we see:

  • People using their knowledge of other people in selfish, harmful, and hurtful ways.
  • People who intend well coming from a self-centered perspective or from self-doubt and failing to make win-win success happen.
  • People remaining needy and dependent, making win-win success impossible.
  • People needing the safety of conformity and being unwilling to try a creative relationship.
  • People idealizing individuality and being unable to participate in true win-win synergy.

Given all of this, it takes a lot of courage to declare our vision and ask to be understood. And it takes a lot of courage to try, and fail, and then walk away from something that looks good when we see it won't work - even though others think that it will.

Seeking to be understood requires all the clarity, character, and courage we've developed through learning and practicing the first four habits. And it opens the door to a wonderful experience we will learn about in Habit 6: Synergy.

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.


Sid Kemp (author) from Boca Raton, Florida (near Miami and Palm Beach) on September 24, 2012:

I agree completely. I suggest it is more a collective problem than individual denial. "Intelligent" as you use it here is a left-brain function. Self-awareness is a neocortex function, and almost no one activates the neocortex. We just, by and large, do not know how. And self-awareness without that is very painful self-judgement. If we first activate the heart-mind (a neural center located in the heart) generating unconditional love, we can then activate self-awareness without judgment (the neo-cortex). Then we are engaging a different type of intelligence, a wise, loving, and forgiving intelligence with a deeper intuition that will guide us on the path of healing. Using those unused parts of the brain, and integrating the whole brain, we heal ourselves, end fear and projection, and become ready to actually be of deep service to others.

The work of professional care-takers is valuable at it's own level. I work with those who want to go to that deeper level. If interested, please get in touch - your comments have all been most insightful!

visionandfocus from North York, Canada on September 21, 2012:

You said, "To understand other people, we will have to stop listening from and living out of our own story."

This is almost impossible for most people. I believe it takes a great deal of self-awareness and commitment to working on our own issues and clearing them before we can be objective enough to be of true help to anyone else. We project so much. We care too much. Sadly but realistically, even professional counselors have their own issues and are not always able to clear them and can get triggered by their clients whose issues might mirror their own. With all the qualifications in the world, an intelligent professional can still remain a basket case. Unless they are willing and committed to working on their own "stuff", they are doing their clients a disservice. How can that not be obvious? Are they all in denial?