Seek First To Understand Then To Be Understood (Empathic Listening): Habit 5

Seek First To Understand Then To Be Understood (Empathic Listening): Habit 5

The journey to effective interpersonal relationships often seems winding, laden with missteps and misconceptions. Stephen R. Covey, the renowned author of “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People,” proposed an approach that clears this path. One of the crucial habits he suggests is Habit 5, “Seek First to Understand, Then to Be Understood.” This habit, rooted in empathic listening, paves the way for open, honest, and effective communication. It calls for a shift in perspective, a readiness to set aside one’s assumptions and preconceptions to comprehend the other person’s perspective truly.

The Importance of Empathic Listening in Personal and Professional Relationships

Empathic listening extends beyond the ordinary act of hearing. It involves absorbing not just the words spoken but also the underlying emotions, the unvoiced thoughts, and the subtle signals of body language. Such deep, holistic comprehension fosters trust and respect, vital in personal and professional relationships. In the realm of work, empathic listening can catalyze effective teamwork and collaboration, elevating the overall performance of an organization. It acts as a cornerstone in personal relationships, forging stronger bonds and fostering understanding and compassion.

The Role of Understanding in Stephen Covey’s 7 Habits

In Covey’s model, seeking to understand before being understood is central. This habit marks the transition from the ‘private victory’ (the first three habits, centered on self-mastery) to the ‘public victory’ (the following three habits, focused on effective interaction with others). The true essence of this habit lies in genuine understanding, which is a key to empathy, and ultimately leads to influence and mutual benefit.

Strategies to Cultivate Empathic Listening

Cultivating empathic listening requires practice and patience. Begin by listening without interrupting, a sign of respect that makes others feel valued. Ask insightful questions to further your understanding and actively participate in the conversation. Non-verbal cues, such as nodding or maintaining eye contact, can enhance your empathic listening skills.

Breaking Down Barriers to Understanding: Overcoming Prejudices and Biases

Biases and prejudices often cloud our judgment, hindering our understanding of others entirely. Recognize these barriers and make conscious efforts to overcome them. This process involves becoming aware of your biases, challenging them, and gradually replacing them with open-minded attitudes.

Practical Exercises to Enhance Empathic Listening Skills

Practical exercises, such as role-playing scenarios and practicing active listening techniques, can enhance your empathic listening skills.

  • Practice Active Listening: Active listening involves fully focusing on the speaker, avoiding interruptions, and responding thoughtfully. It’s a skill you can practice in everyday conversations. Pay attention not just to the words, but also the speaker’s emotions and body language.
  • Role-playing Scenarios: Role-playing can be a very effective method for enhancing empathic listening. You can do this with a friend or colleague. Create scenarios where one person speaks, and the other person practices listening empathically. Afterwards, discuss the experience and exchange feedback.
  • The Echo Technique involves paraphrasing or summarizing the speaker’s words to ensure you’ve understood correctly. Here’s how to do it:
  1. Listen attentively to the speaker without interrupting.
  2. After the speaker finishes a point, reflect on what they said.
  3. Rephrase what they said in your own words. For example, “So what I’m hearing is…”, or “It sounds like you’re saying…”
  4. Ask for confirmation. The speaker can then confirm if your understanding is correct or clarify if necessary.
  • Mindfulness Meditation: Mindfulness helps you stay focused on the present moment, which can greatly enhance your listening skills. Set aside a few minutes each day to practice mindfulness meditation. This involves focusing on your breath, letting go of distracting thoughts, and simply being present in the moment.
  • Journaling: After having a deep conversation, take some time to journal about the experience. What did you learn from the speaker? What emotions did they express? How well do you feel you understood them? This reflection can provide valuable insights to help you improve.
  • Feedback: Ask for feedback from people you regularly communicate with. They can provide you with valuable insights about your listening skills and suggest areas for improvement. Remember to accept this feedback with an open mind and consider it a learning opportunity.

Each of these exercises can help you enhance your empathic listening skills. Practice them regularly, and you’ll likely see a noticeable improvement in your ability to connect with and understand others.

The Interplay Between Seeking to Understand and Seeking to Be Understood

Seeking to understand before being understood creates a foundation of trust and mutual respect, making it easier for others to listen to and understand you. This mutual understanding opens the door for more meaningful, productive conversations.

Impact of Empathic Listening on Communication Effectiveness

Empathic listening improves the overall quality of communication by promoting understanding, minimizing misunderstandings, and fostering an atmosphere of cooperation. It enables a more profound connection, facilitates conflict resolution, and promotes a shared sense of purpose and direction.

Real-World Example of Empathic Listening in Action

  • Consider the story of Elizabeth, a CEO of a mid-sized technology company. During the early stages of the pandemic, she noticed a drop in employee productivity and morale. Rather than making hasty decisions or blaming the team, she conducted an “open floor” virtual meeting. During this meeting, Elizabeth provided a platform for every employee to voice their concerns and challenges while working remotely. She actively listened, acknowledged their struggles, and empathized with each concern. Not once did she interrupt or rush the process. By doing so, Elizabeth demonstrated empathic listening, showing her team that she genuinely cared about their well-being and was ready to find solutions collectively. Following this, she implemented flexible work schedules, virtual team-building activities, and mental health support based on the concerns she understood from the session. Over time, the team’s productivity improved, and the trust and loyalty towards the company and Elizabeth increased, fostering a healthier work culture.
  • For a personal example, consider John and Lily, a married couple. One day, Lily expressed frustration that John was not contributing enough to household chores. John, instead of becoming defensive, chose to engage in empathic listening. He allowed Lily to share her feelings and frustrations without interruption. He then repeated what he had understood, ensuring he correctly grasped her feelings and concerns. He did not try to provide solutions immediately but showed that he genuinely understood and acknowledged her feelings. This act of empathic listening diffused what could have been an argument. Later, they had a calm, productive discussion about how to share the chores more equally, strengthening their relationship and mutual understanding.

These scenarios underscore the power of empathic listening in enhancing mutual understanding, improving relationships, and driving positive action.

How to Maintain the Habit: Long-Term Strategies for Empathic Listening

Maintaining the habit of empathic listening over the long term involves consistent practice and a commitment to personal growth. Set aside time daily to practice active listening and seek feedback from others to continue improving. Regularly remind yourself of the value of understanding others, and strive to approach each conversation with an open mind and a willingness to learn.


Habit 5, “Seek First to Understand, Then to Be Understood,” plays a transformative role in our personal and professional lives. It encourages us to shift our focus from our perspectives to the perspectives of others, fostering a culture of understanding and mutual respect. When practiced diligently, empathic listening can revolutionize our communication skills, enabling us to build stronger, more effective relationships. It reminds us that at the core of every interaction lies a simple, profound truth – before we seek to make ourselves understood, we must first understand.