Covey #5 – Seek first to understand, then to be understood

Covey #5 – Seek first to understand, then to be understood

There is a common tendency to try and fix things with ‘good’ advice.

Things are not your problem and yet you immediately associate the problem with your own experiences and before you know you blurt out an advice. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?

But how helpful is such an advice? And do you ever take it to heart?

Our education has taught us how to read, write and speak. But who was ever educated in listening? I was, when I studied psychology, but that might be considered a bit late. The people around me had already suffered twenty years of me not listening to them properly!

Psychology only taught me techniques; it did not teach me how I could really hear the other person.

Covey explicitly puts a focus on listening by heart, which goes further than techniques can take you.

Another person – your lover, employee or someone you just met – will notice that you are sincerely interested if he or she experiences that you are listening honestly.

Only by listening sincerely will you notice the true feelings and ideas of your friend or colleague. And only this will help you give him or her the best possible advice.

Mistaking talking for listening

Do you ever wonder if you are listening sincerely? When you often give one of the following replies when talking to someone, you are probably doing anything but listening:

  • “I went through the very same thing. Let me tell you about my experience.”
  • “Oh, I know exactly how you feel.”

How can you understand the other with a few words and reply with an entire story? Simple: you can’t!

Most times, you try to understand someone else by relating his story to your own experiences. If this is all you do, you are seeing the other as if he is you. Guess what, he is not! Relating to your own experiences is not a good start for true understanding.

Five types of listening

Covey distinguishes between five types of listening (or pretending to listen).

  1. Ignoring: not really listening at all.
  2. Pretending: humming along while not really following.
  3. Selective listening: hearing what you want to hear.
  4. Attentive listening: paying attention to the words.
  5. Empathic listening: intending to understand what the other is trying to communicate.

Empathic listening is not about agreeing with the other (showing sympathy). It is about understanding what message the other is trying to convey. It is the only form of true listening.

Products or needs?

A good salesman will know the needs of his customers. He will look at the products he has and if those products will serve the needs of his customers. He wants to know if he can provide a true solution to his customers needs.

We all know those salesmen that are just trying to sell their products regardless of what we need, don’t we? Ho do they make you feel? Right…

Understanding is the key in many situations. If you do not have a solution, it might give greater satisfaction to admit this than to come with a solution that actually is not a solution at all.

What you should NOT do:

Four types of reacting from an egocentric perspective, that are unproductive:

  1. Evaluate: do not immediately let the other know whether you agree or disagree;
  2. Probe: do not keep asking questions and investigating;
  3. Advise: do not counsel purely based on your personal experiences;
  4. Interpret: do not try to define the motives of the behavior based on your personal experience.

Four keys to EMPHATIC listening

Empathic listening is the way to go, and can be divided into different levels:

  1. Mimic the content: repeat what the other just said. This makes sure that you are listening and that the other knows you are. The good thing of mimicking is that there is no place for judgment;
  2. Rephrase the content: tell the same story, but in your own words. You do not only show that you are listening, but also that you understand what the other is (literally) saying;
  3. Reflect on feelings: focus on the emotions that lie behind what is told, not on the words that try to express these emotions;
  4. Rephrase the content and reflect the feeling: this is a combination of the second and third form of empathic listening. It shows that you are really listening and understanding what message lies behind the words.

The impact of undivided attention

Giving someone the feeling that you are truly listening has great impact on your relationship (see Covey’s metaphore of emotional banking)

Once the other has the feeling that you are really listening he will ask you what your opinion is. He will want to know if you had similar experiences and how you acted. But he will want to know these things only after you listened first!

Learning how to listen is a great advantage when you are working from a win/win frame.

The reason for this is that the perception others have of you changes when you listen emphatically. Your friends, colleagues, and family will start experiencing you as an open person, and hence will start opening up themselves to you.

I assume that you want to know how to listen emphatically? Practice is the key. Every next conversation you have, try to listen empathically. Do not expect the entire world to open up directly. Do not push it.

My addition to Covey – how to make understanding a habit

I advise to check how you react to people during the next ten times you encounter someone.

Are you already listening and do you need some improvement? Or are you responding too quickly and do you have to start from the beginning?

After you find out how you are currently doing, it is time to decide where you will focus on.

You can take one of the four keys of empathetic listening, and every time someone uses the word ‘problem’ or ‘issue’ or ‘can you help me’, this is your cue to implement your new way of listening and reacting.

After you mastered your first level, try the next level.


Stephen R. Covey. “The 7 HABITS of Highly Effective People: Restoring the Character Ethic.” FreePress, New York, 2004.

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles/




Innovation and Research Officer at Sugar Habits
Judith studied behavioral change (applied social psychology) and is currently finishing her masters in philosophy with special attention for philosophy of action and intentionality. She works for SugarHabits a social media platform that helps people unlock more of their potential through learning new habits.

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4 Responses to “Covey #5 – Seek first to understand, then to be understood”

  1. Bas Leijssenaar says:

    Great blog Judith. I really enjoyed reading this one. I am certain that this will help me and many other people improve our relationships with colleagues, and even with friends and family. Do you have any ideas on why it is so extremely difficult NOT to put our own personality and experiences in our replies IMMEDIATELY when talking to others?

    • Thanks for the comment Bas.

      I can think of at least two reasons:

      Sometimes we do not want to hear what the other is saying (or at least we think we don’t) and hence we rather start reacting.

      If you do not know the great impact of listening, and have many wrong examples in your environment, you never learn to listen and understand.

      Do you agree on these possibilities?

  2. Lynell says:

    Hey I know this is off topic but I was wondering if you knew of any widgets I could add to my blog that
    automatically tweet my newest twitter updates.
    I’ve been looking for a plug-in like this for quite some time and was hoping maybe you would have some experience with something like this. Please let me know if you run into anything. I truly enjoy reading your blog and I look forward to your new updates.

    • Hi Lynell, sorry for the late reply, I didn’t know the answer :) It is part of the Jetpack on WordPress, you can download it as one of the plugins. Good luck!