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)

As I baked today for the Thanksgiving holiday, I thought about the people I am thankful for and the reasons why I am thankful for them. Yes, there was a list of people and things but I thought hard about what really affects my day to day life that I don’t notice as often as I should. It came down to immense gratitude for family and friends that listen. Simple, right? Not exactly. Someone can listen with their ears, but are they listening with their heart? Are they easily distracted? Sincere listening, the kind I am thankful for, involves a real engagement, a genuine commitment to the present moment and the space you share with someone.

I thought back to an exercise we did in Nepal with the Nepalese women: a study in active listening versus inactive listening. To go further, in Stephen Covey’s The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, he lists Empathic Listening as the 5th most important habit. 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.  So…how do you listen?

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.

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.

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.


Categorized in: Wellness,

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