Listening is hard work but  when understand it pays off.

Listening is hard work but when understand it pays off.

The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen R. Covey Reread

Habit Five:  Seek First To Understand, Then To Be Understood

Communication is the act of giving or receiving understanding, and it is a critical skill in every part of our lives. In order to fully communicate, the person receiving must not only understand what is being communicated, but also let the communicator know that they have truly been understood. Listening is at the heart of understanding and communicating.  Even so, we tend to spend very little time learning about or being trained in listening.  Training in listening teaches the trainee how to pay attention and interpret the story being told, and the how language and body language impact the story. These are skills that can be learned. Because of lack of training most of what we hear is filtered through our own frame of reference because we don’t have the skills to listen from the speaker’s frame of reference.

When we listen from our own frame of reference we practice selective listening.  Selective listening generates one of four classes of response.  Based on our baggage, we evaluate communication by agreeing or disagreeing. We probe, asking questions based on our own point of view. We advise, providing counsel based on our experience. Finally we interpret, ascribing motivation based on our motives and behaviors. Our scripting makes it difficult to both hear what is really being said and understanding the emotions and feelings behind what is being said.  Both are required for true communication. The alternative is to put ourselves behind the eyes of speaker, seeking to hear from their frame of reference leads to deeper understanding.

When we fail to listen and understand, we tend to act first then have to take the time to pick up the pieces afterwards. For example, would you trust a doctor that prescribed before taking time to diagnose the problem? No, the expectation would be that the doctor listen and communication with the patient (assuming that is possible) first.

In this habit Covey identifies four stages of listening:

  1. Mimicking – This the classic pattern of feeding back.  In my estimation, this form of listening confuses hearing with understanding.
  2. Rephrase the content – In this stage of listening the listener paraphrases what is heard.  This is typically what is referred to as active listening.  It helps develop a bridge between the listener and the speaker.
  3. Reflect feeling – The stage of listening focuses on reflecting the feelings behind the communication.  The focus on feeling makes the listener put himself in speaker’s shoes.  This stage reflects a change in the listener’s frame of reference.
  4. Empathic listening – This stage is the most powerful form of listening in which the listener plays back both the content though rephrasing, but also the feelings.  The focus is understanding the whole communication package (content and feeling) which allows the listener to build powerful rapport.

Empathic listening requires listening as if you were behind the eyes of the speaker. In many cases when we are not practicing empathic listening, it is because we are listening to be understood. In other words, we are listening just enough that we can craft a response. How many meetings or teleconferences have you participated in and been guilty of listening with the intent to reply rather than with to really hear the other participants’ points of view?

Anyone that works in a corporate environment spends a huge amount of time in meetings, presentations and teleconferences. Huge quantities of words and slides are shared with the assumption that communication is occurring. Even if you are not spending the majority of your time in meetings, you still rely on communication.  Developing the ability to listen empathically forces you to listen from the speaker’s frame of reference, resulting in a deeper understanding.