Seek to understand, then to be understood. This is Habit 5 of Stephen Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, and it seems easy enough to do on the surface. Still, for many people, myself included, it can be a difficult habit to implement.  I will admit that I am often not the best listener.  When I am in a conversation and a friend brings up a problem or dilemma that they are dealing with, I immediately start brainstorming how I would approach finding a solution how would go about fixing things. Notice all the “I’s” in those sentences? Therein lies the issue.

Many of us don’t actually listen to others. We tend to think we know what the other person is going to say, and so our minds wander. We can get caught up in our own internal world of thoughts, ego, judgments, and conclusions, often before that person has had a chance to express their view and/or problems. We are generally good at it too; often doing this within the first sentence of the conversation. This problem is a common thing in life and also in the workplace. How many times has your mind been on other things during a conversation? We can get caught up thinking about many topics and ideas:

  • “I need to prepare for that meeting at 3:00 today.”
  • “I forgot to email Jeremy that proposal.”
  • “It’s getting close to lunchtime. I wonder if I’ll have time to grab a sandwich…”

There are literally thousands of thoughts that churn through our minds during an average day. In fact, some experts estimate that the mind thinks between 60,000 – 80,000 thoughts a day. That’s an average of 2,500 – 3,300 thoughts per hour. That’s incredible! And the script keeps running… So, what happens when we focus on ourselves, rather than the person we engage in a conversation with? It means that we may:

  • Selectively engage, picking up on some element of the conversation but taking things out of perspective
  • Completely ignore or dismiss them by continuing to work on other tasks while feigning interest

The reality is that we all know if someone is listening to us or going through the motions. Think back to a situation when you talked to someone, and they weren’t present. How did it make you feel? It probably made you feel angry and upset that they didn’t care what you had to say; or that their time and thoughts were more important than yours. It’s safe to say that the above are not the foundations of building trust, commitment, rapport, respect, relationships. The point is we’re only really listening when we are listening attentively, not to mention empathetically, to that person, and we are responding to a frame of reference that the speaker has mentioned. It means that we don’t talk much. We are not lost in our thoughts. We don’t judge and pre-empt what they will say, and we definitely don’t jump in to immediately give our view. We just listen.

“Seek first to understand” involves a profound paradigm shift. We typically seek first to be understood. Covey notes that “most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.”  He goes on to say, and I find this significant, “our words represent us; our silence represents others.”  Always remember, the ability to hear is a gift. The willingness to listen is a choice.