Communication is the most important skill in life. We spend most of our waking hours communicating. But consider this: You’ve spent years learning how to read and write, years learning how to speak. But what about listening and that too empathic listening? What training or education have you had that enables you to listen so that you really, deeply understand another human being from that individual’s own frame of reference?
If you want to interact effectively with me, to influence me—your spouse, your child, your neighbor, your boss, your coworker, your friend—you first need to understand me. And you can’t do that with technique alone. If I sense you’re using some technique, I sense duplicity, manipulation. I wonder why you’re doing it, what your motives are. And I don’t feel safe enough to open myself up to you.
Unless I open up with you, unless you understand me and my unique situation and feelings, you won’t know how to advise or counsel me. What you say is good and fine, but it doesn’t quite pertain to me.
Unless you’re influenced by my uniqueness, I’m not going to be influenced by your advice. So if you want to be really effective in the habit of interpersonal communication, you cannot do it with technique alone. You have to build the skills of empathic listening on a base of character that inspires openness and trust. And you have to build the Emotional Bank Accounts that create commerce between hearts.
Suppose you’ve been having trouble with your eyes and you decide to go to an optometrist for help.
After briefly listening to your complaint, he takes off his glasses and hands them to you.
“Put these on,” he says. “I’ve worn this pair of glasses for ten years now and they’ve really helped me. I have an extra pair at home; you can wear these.”
So you put them on, but it only makes the problem worse.
“This is terrible!” you exclaim. “I can’t see a thing!”
“Well, what’s wrong?” he asks. “They work great for me. Try harder.”
“I am trying,” you insist. “Everything is a blur.”
“Well, what’s the matter with you? Think positively.”
“Okay. I positively can’t see a thing.”
“Boy, are you ungrateful!” he chides. “And after all I’ve done to help you!”
What are the chances you’d go back to that optometrist the next time you needed help? Not very good, I would imagine. You don’t have much confidence in someone who doesn’t diagnose before he or she prescribes. But how often do we diagnose before we prescribe in communication?
“Come on, honey, tell me how you feel. I know it’s hard, but I’ll try to understand.”
“Oh, I don’t know, Mom. You’d think it was stupid.”
“Of course I wouldn’t! You can tell me. Honey, no one cares for you as much as I do. I’m only interested in your welfare. What’s making you so unhappy?”
“Oh, I don’t know.” “Come on, honey. What is it?”
“Well, to tell you the truth, I just don’t like school anymore.”
“What?” you respond incredulously. “What do you mean you don’t like school? And after all the sacrifices we’ve made for your education! Education is the foundation of your future. If you’d apply yourself as your older sister does, you’d do better, and then you’d like school. Time and time again, we’ve told you to settle down. You’ve got the ability, but you just don’t apply yourself. Try harder. Get a positive attitude about it.”
“Now go ahead. Tell me how you feel.”
We have such a tendency to rush in, to fix things up with good advice. But we often fail to take the time to diagnose, to really, deeply understand the problem first. If I were to summarize in one sentence the single most important principle I have learned in the field of interpersonal relations, it would be this: Seek first to understand, then to be understood. This principle is the key to effective interpersonal communication.
“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.
“Oh, I know exactly how you feel!”
“I went through the very same thing. Let me tell you about my experience.”
They’re constantly projecting their own home movies onto other people’s behavior. They prescribe their own glasses for everyone with whom they interact. If they have a problem with someone—a son, a daughter, a spouse, an employee—their attitude is, “That person just doesn’t understand.”
Empathic listening involves much more than registering, reflecting, or even understanding the words that are said. Communications experts estimate, in fact, that only 10 percent of our communication is represented by the words we say. Another 30 percent is represented by our sounds, and 60 percent 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. And you use your right brain as well as your left. You sense, intuit, and 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.
Practical Use of Concept
Stephen Covey taught this concept at a seminar in Chicago one time, and he instructed the participants to practice empathic listening during the evening.
The next morning, a man came up to him almost bursting with news. “Let me tell you what happened last night,” he said. “I was trying to close a big commercial real estate deal while I was here in Chicago. I met with the principals, their attorneys, and another real estate agent who had just been brought in with an alternative proposal.”
It looked as if I were going to lose the deal. I had been working on this deal for over six months and, in a very real sense, all my eggs were in this one basket. All of them. I panicked. I did everything I could—I pulled out all the stops—I used every sales technique I could. The final stop was to say, ‘Could we delay this decision just a little longer?’ But the momentum was so strong and they were so disgusted by having this thing go on so long, it was obvious they were going to close.
So I said to myself, ‘Well, why not try it? Why not practice what I learned today and seek first to understand, then to be understood? I’ve got nothing to lose.’
I just said to the man, ‘Let me see if I really understand what your position is and what your concerns about my recommendations really are. When you feel I understand them, then we’ll see whether my proposal has any relevance or not.’ I really tried to put myself in his shoes. I tried to verbalize his needs and concerns, and he began to open up. “The more I sensed and expressed the things he was worried about, the results he anticipated, the more he opened up.”
Finally, in the middle of our conversation, he stood up, walked over to the phone, and dialed his wife. Putting his hand over the mouthpiece, he said, ‘You’ve got the deal.’ “I was totally dumbfounded,” he told to Stephen. “I still am this morning.”
He had made a huge deposit in the Emotional Bank Account by giving the man psychological air. When it comes right down to it, other things being relatively equal, the human dynamic is more important than the technical dimensions of the deal.
This article on empathic listening is from ‘The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People’ by Stephen R. Covey.