The Highest Form of Listening: Seek First to Understand (Stephen Covey)

 Listen when someone is speaking, not to the words, but to what is talking.
-Diane Osbon

trip to boston (65 of 87)I have been thinking about an exercise we did in Nepal with the Nepalese women: a study in active listening versus inactive listening. Being reminded of this today, I sat down to research more information on how be an effective listener. Mainly because putting my phone down and day aside just doesn’t feel like enough. Within a few clicks, I came across Stephen Covey’s The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People which lists Empathic Listening at number 5. In opposition to “active” listening (which he says is meant solely to register, reflect, and mimic the speaker), “empathic” listening has one single intent: understanding. And not just understanding, but really, really understanding, he says. Empathic listening is putting yourself in the position to feel what the other person is feeling, to see the world through their lens, and to find a deeper meaning in what is being said. This in-depth skill of listening is devoid of opinion, autobiography, or giving advice. It is giving yourself to the other person: eyes, ears, and heart. Not only does it create a more thorough connection with a family member, friend, stranger, or colleague, it also puts you in a position to practice the art of complete selflessness.  

Here are a few excerpts from Stephen Covey’s award winning book that I found inspiring today, found on Fast Company.

The habit to “seek first to understand” involves a very deep shift in paradigm. We typically seek first to be understood. Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply. They’re either speaking or preparing to speak. They’re filtering everything through their own paradigms, reading their autobiography into other people’s lives.

“Oh, I know exactly how you feel!”

“I went through the very same thing. Let me tell you about my experience.”

They’re constantly projecting their own home movies onto other people’s behavior. They prescribe their own glasses for everyone with whom they interact.

If they have a problem with someone–a son, a daughter, a spouse, an employee–their attitude is, “That person just doesn’t understand.”

A father once told me, “I can’t understand my kid. He just won’t listen to me at all.”

“Let me restate what you just said,” I replied. “You don’t understand your son becausehe won’t listen to you?”

“That’s right,” he replied.

“Let me try again,” I said. “You don’t understand your son because he won’t listen to you?”

“That’s what I said,” he impatiently replied.

“I thought that to understand another person, you needed to listen to him,” I suggested.

“Oh!” he said. There was a long pause. “Oh!” he said again, as the light began to dawn. “Oh, yeah! But I do understand him. I know what he’s going through. I went through the same thing myself. I guess what I don’t understand is why he won’t listen to me.”

This man didn’t have the vaguest idea of what was really going on inside his boy’s head. He looked into his own head and thought he saw the world, including his boy. That’s the case with so many of us. We’re filled with our own lightness, our own autobiography. We want to be understood. Our conversations become collective monologues, and we never really understand what’s going on inside another human being.

When another person speaks, we’re usually “listening” at one of four levels. We may be ignoring another person, not really listening at all. We may practice pretending. “Yeah. Uh-huh. Right.” We may practice selective listening, hearing only certain parts of the conversation. We often do this when we’re listening to the constant chatter of a preschool child. Or we may even practice attentive listening, paying attention and focusing energy on the words that are being said. But very few of us ever practice the fifth level, the highest form of listening, empathic listening.

Empathy is not sympathy. Sympathy is a form of agreement, a form of judgment. And it is sometimes the more appropriate emotion and response. But people often feed on sympathy. It makes them dependent. The essence of empathic listening is not that you agree with someone; it’s that you fully, deeply, understand that person, emotionally as well as intellectually.

trip to boston (55 of 87)

Empathic listening involves much more than registering, reflecting, or even understanding the words that are said. Communications experts estimate, in fact, that only 10% of our communication is represented by the words we say. Another 30 percent is represented by our sounds, and 60% by our body language. In empathic listening, you listen with your ears, but you also, and more importantly, listen with your eyes and with your heart. You listen for feeling, for meaning. You listen for behavior. You use your right brain as well as your left. You sense, you intuit, you feel.

Empathic listening is so powerful because it gives you accurate data to work with. Instead of projecting your own autobiography and assuming thoughts, feelings, motives and interpretation, you’re dealing with the reality inside another person’s head and heart. You’re listening to understand. You’re focused on receiving the deep communication of another human soul.

In addition, empathic listening is the key to making deposits in Emotional Bank Accounts, because nothing you do is a deposit unless the other person perceives it as such. You can work your fingers to the bone to make a deposit, only to have it turn into a withdrawal when a person regards your efforts as manipulative.

Empathic listening is, in and of itself, a tremendous deposit in the Emotional Bank Account. It’s deeply therapeutic and healing because it gives a person psychological air.

If all the air were suddenly sucked out of the room you’re in right now, what would happen to your interest in this book? You wouldn’t care about the book; you wouldn’t care about anything except getting air. Survival would be your only motivation.

But now that you have air, it doesn’t motivate you. This is one of the greatest insights in the field of human motivation: Satisfied needs do not motivate. It’s only the unsatisfied need that motivates. Next to physical survival, the greatest need of a human being is psychological survival–to be understood, to be affirmed, to be validated, to be appreciated.

When you listen with empathy to another person, you give that person psychological air. And after that vital need is met, you can then focus on influencing or problem solving. This need for psychological air impacts communication in every area of life.


  1. At the risk of seeming to be not listening empathetic-ally, I agree. With new acquaintances, we must work even harder on this because we have little or no prior experience with them or understanding of the emotional state from which they are coming. I think we all need to work on this, especially me since I’m the only one I can control. You’ve given me something very important to reflect on. Thank you.

  2. Pingback: Thinking Like a Designer: Empathic Exploration | Skill A Day

  3. Pingback: You Don’t Get Much Without Giving | The Inspired Verse

  4. Reblogged this on jezryl3098 and commented:
    “The art of complete selflessness”
    People need this. We all need this! As to stop nagging and complaining or backbiting about people! We need to undestand each other. We need to truly listen. Listen to understand.

  5. Pingback: Personal Development and Life Mastery

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