Habit 5: Seek first to understand

“We’re filled with our own rightness, our own autobiography” Covey

Welcome to part 5 of 7 looking at the science (or not) of Stephen Coveys ‘7 Habits of Highly Effective People’.

Those that joined me in Habit 4 will know I am starting to despair about the apparent mismatch (or lack of dialogue at least) between mainstream management practices and the research on management practice.

I was hoping I would get a break in Habit 5, for me and my dear readers.  Dear reader, guess what? We both get a break.  Here it is, watch this video (middle of the screen ish).

Are you still laughing?  I loved this when it went viral a few years ago and I love it again now.  It takes the mickey in a delightful way of many issues in gendered stereotyped male/female communications.  I hate a gendered stereotype as much as the next guy, but boy have I experienced this (from both sides).  Laughter at the human condition aside, there are many important points made here.  It can be dam hard to truly listen when the solution is literally staring you in the face.  But in real life, the solution to this woman’s pain might not have been the literal nail in her forehead!  The trick to listening is to truly suspend judgement, to just shut up for a bit, it’s not about you mate!

The opening quote and the video alone are enough to change a life and transform communication.  But we are here to consider the science so….

What is the science in listening (which is the crux of this habit)?

Good news; there is so much published on listening, there is even an “International Journal of Listening”.  My experiences in previous blogs are going to stop me looking for Covey’s exact approaches in these journals as I am too old and tired for a wild goose chase today.

So let’s give him the benefit of the doubt and see what he had to say.

Covey on listening.

There are five levels of listening:

  1. Ignoring (not actually listening at all)
  2. Pretending (really is that any better? Even worse?)
  3. Selective (a bit selfish as usually the selecting is self-interested)
  4. Attentive (getting there)
  5. Empathic (listening with the sole intent to understand)

Do try this at home and see what happens – let me know.  There are more suggested actions (as this habit really needs to be learnt by having a crack at it):

  • Select a relationship where the emotional bank account is in the red.  Try and really get the other persons perspective.  Then have a go at level 5 listening next time they are talking.
  • Tell someone close about empathic listening, tell them you are having a go at it, get their feedback.
  • Go for a coffee, alone and watch people that you can’t hear communicating.
  • Next time you catch yourself ignoring, probing, advising etc. say “I’m sorry, I’m not really listening right mate, can we start over” (of course if you are not in New Zealand or Australia it might not be appropriate to call people ‘mate’).

Yours as Ever,

The [email protected]

References links and all that jazz


This is part of a larger series on Stephen Covers 7 Habits, being:

  1. Be Proactive
  2. Begin with the End in Mind
  3. Put First Things First
  4. Think Win-Win
  5. Seek First to Understand, Then to be Understood
  6. Synergize
  7. Sharpen the Saw