Listen First to Understand

Emily Schirpke of New London sent this to me today. (By the way, I’m always glad to receive your feedback.)

“Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.” – Stephen R. Covey

If you haven’t heard of Covey, he is one of the foremost leadership thinkers of our time. His book The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People is classic. It’s well over 20 years old and still widely read and quoted.

One of the seven habits is “listen first to understand.”

Covey says that most of us listen as much as necessary and as little as possible. I catch myself doing it frequently. As soon as the dialogue starts, I determine where I think the conversation is going and begin to form my response. I think most of us do it that way.

So, here’s what I work on:

I try to slow down. The more sensitive and important the topic, the more it deserves listening to understand.

I talk about courageous communication a lot. I challenge everyone to step up and address the awkward, uncomfortable, troublesome issues.

When courageous communication is called into action, I need to recognize that when someone is showing the guts to bring up a difficult issue that they deserve listening that is in pursuit of understanding.

In fact, in our organization, we can use that to our advantage. We could start courageous communication by simply saying, “I’m attempting courageous communication.” That should signal the listener to listen with more focus.

As I try to become a better listener, I’ve learned there’s a rhythm to listening. It needs to be slow paced and patient. It needs to begin with the idea that there will be more in the conversation near the end of it than at the beginning. The full depth of the conversation will unfold over minutes as compared to seconds. It is important to wait.

So, the strategies I use are this:

I try to get in the other person’s shoes. What are they saying? What are they feeling? Why now?

Also, as I prepare to respond I try to come up with questions that advance the conversation as compared to comments or observations that end it.

So, please note that I say I try. I fail at this frequently. I find these are strategies that take cultivation. But, I think they produce greater understanding.