Habit 5-Seek First to Understand, Then to be Understood


The key to communication and having power and influence with people can be summed up in one sentence: Seek first to understand, then to be understood. In other words, listen first, talk second. If you can learn this habit-to see things from another’s point of view before sharing your own-a whole new world of understanding will be opened up to you.


The Deepest Need of the Human Heart

Why is this habit the key to communication? It’s because the deepest need of the human heart is to be understood. Everyone wants to be respected and valued for who they are-a unique, one of a kind individual.


Five Poor Listening Styles

To understand someone you must listen to them. Surprise! The problem is that most of us don’t know how to listen. Listening is one of your four primary forms of communication, along with reading, writing, and speaking. And if you think about it, since birth you’ve been taking classes on how to read, write, and speak better, but when have you ever taken a class on how to listen better?

When people talk we seldom listen because we’re usually too busy preparing a response, judging, or filtering their words through your own paradigms. It’s so typical of us to use one of these five poor listening styles:


Five Poor Listening Styles


Spacing out is when someone is talking to us but we ignore them because our mind is wandering off in another galaxy. We all space out from time to time, but do it too much and you’’ get a reputation for being “out of it.”

Pretend listening is more common. We still aren’t paying attention to the other person, but at least we pretend we are by making insightful comments at key junctures, such as “uh-huh,” or “yeah.” The speaker will usually get the hint and will feel that he or she is not being heard.

Selective listening is where we pay attention only to the part of the conversation that interests us. For example, your friend may be trying to tell you how it feels to be in the shadow of his talented brother in the army. All you hear is the word “army” and say, “Oh yeah, the army! I’ve been thinking a lot about it lately.” Since you’ll always talk about what you want to talk about, instead of what the other person wants to talk about, chances are you’ll never develop lasting friendships.

Word listening occurs when we actually pay attention to what someone is saying, but we listen only to the words, not to the body language, the feelings, or the true meaning behind the words. As a result, we miss out on what’s really being said.

Self-centered listening happens when we see everything from our own point of view. Instead of standing in another’s shoes, we want them to stand in ours. Self-centered listening is often a game of one-upmanship, where we try to one-up each other, as if conversations were a competition. “You think your day was bad? That’s nothin’. You should hear what happened to me.”


When we listen from our point of view, we usually reply in one of three ways, all of which make the other person immediately close up. We judge, advice, and we probe. Let’s take a look at each.

Judging. Sometimes, as we listen to others, we make judgments (in the back of our minds) about them and what they’re saying. If you’re busy judging, you’re not really listening, are you? People don’t want to be judged, they want to be heard.

Advising. This is when we give advice drawn from our own experience. This is the when I was your age speech you often get from your elders. Only when someone first feels understood will they be open to advice.

Probing. Probing occurs when you try to dig up emotions before people are ready to share them. No one likes to be interrogated. If you’re asking a lot of questions and not getting very far, you’re probably probing. Sometimes people just aren’t prepared to open up and don’t feel like talking. Learn to be a great listener and offer an open ear when the time is right.


Genuine Listening

There is a higher form of listening, fortunately, which leads to real communication. It is called genuine listening. And it’s the kind of practice we want to put to use. But to do genuine listening, you need to do three things differently.

First, listen with your eyes, heart, and ears. Listening with just your ears isn’t good enough, because only 7% of communication is contained in the words we use. The rest comes from body language (53%) and how we say words, or the tone and feeling reflected in our voice (40%). For example, notice how you change the meaning of a sentence just by emphasizing a different word.


I didn’t say you had an attitude problem.

I didn’t say you had an attitude problem.

I didn’t say you had an attitude problem.


To hear what other people are really saying, you need to listen to what they are not saying. No matter how hard people may appear on the surface. Most everyone is tender inside and has a desperate need to be understood.


Second, stand in their shoes. To become a genuine listener, you need to take off your shoes and stand in another’s. Let’s pretend for a moment that everyone in the world wears tinted glasses and that no two shades are exactly alike. You and I are standing on the banks of a river. I am wearing green lenses and you are wearing red.

 “Wow, look how green the water is,” I say.

“Green? Are you crazy, the water is red,” you reply.

“Hello. Are you colorblind? That’s as green as green gets.”

“It’s red, you idiot!”



Many people look at conversations as a competition. It’s my point of view versus yours; we can’t both be. Furthermore, it’s silly to try to win conversations.


Third, practice mirroring. Think like a mirror. What does a mirror do? It doesn’t judge. It doesn’t give advice. It reflects. Mirroring is simply this: Repeat back in your own words what the other person is saying and feeling. Mirroring isn’t mimicking. Mimicking is when you repeat exactly what the other person says, like a parrot. Mirroring is different from mimicking in the following ways:


Mimicking Is:                                                                 Mirroring Is:

Repeating words                                                           Repeating meaning

Using the same words                                                   Using your own words

Cold and indifferent                                                       Warm and caring


If you practice mirroring but don’t really desire to understand others, they will see through it and feel manipulated. Mirroring is a skill, the tip of the iceberg. Your attitude or desire to really understand another is the lurking mass of ice underneath the surface. Here are a few mirroring phases you can use when trying to practice genuine listening.


Mirroring Phrases


Then Seek to Be Understood

Practicing only the first half of Habit 5, Seek First to Understand, is weak. It’s lose-win. It’s the doormat syndrome. Giving feedback is an important part of seeking to be understood. If you have a close friend with bad breath (to the point of developing a reputation for it),don’t you think he or she would appreciate some honest feedback, delivered tenderly? Keep these two points in mind as you give feedback.

First, ask yourself the question “Will this feedback really help this person or am I doing it just to suit myself and fix them?” If your motive for the feedback isn’t with their best interest at heart, then it’s probably not the time or place to do it. Second, send “I” messages instead of “you” messages. In other words, give feedback in the first person. Say, “I’m concerned that you have a temper problem”. “You” messages are more threatening because they sound as if you’re labeling. “You have a horrible temper.”



Habit 5-Seek First to Understand, Then to be Understood – Worksheet


1. What are the five poor listening styles?

  1. _______________________________________________________________________________.
  2. _______________________________________________________________________________.
  3. _______________________________________________________________________________.
  4. _______________________________________________________________________________.
  5. _______________________________________________________________________________.


2. Define judging: ____________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________.


3. Define advising: ____________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________.


4. Define probing: ____________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________.


5. Ask yourself, “Which of the five poor listening styles do I have the biggest problem with-Spacing Out, Pretend Listening, Selective Listening, Word Listening, or Self-Centered Listening (judging, advising, probing)? Now, try to go one day without doing it.

The poor listening style I struggle with most: __________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________


6. What are the three steps to genuine listening?

  1. ________________________________________________________________________________
  2. ________________________________________________________________________________
  3. ________________________________________________________________________________


7. What percentage of communication is contained in words? _______%. In body lanuage? ________________%. In tone and feeling reflected in your voice? _______________%.


8. Define mirroring: ______________________________________________________________________________________.


9. Define mimicking: ______________________________________________________________________________________.


10. List two mirroring phrases: 1. _________________________________________________________. 2. ____________________________________________________________________________________.


11. What are two points to keep in mind as you give feedback? 1. ______________________________.

2. ____________________________________________________________________________________.


12. Think of a situation where your constructive feedback would really help another person. Share it with them when the time is right.

Person who could benefit from my feedback: ____________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________