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Seek first to understand…

Listening. One of the most important communication skills we can utilise. However, while the majority of us learn to read and write from an early age, the ability to listen – and by that I mean truly understanding another human being - is something many of us have received little guidance in mastering.  

According to the author Dr. Stephen Covey, the way we see the world is entirely based on our own perceptions. In order to change a given situation, we must change ourselves, and in order to change ourselves, we must be able to change our perceptions. In his international bestselling book “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People” he develops a framework for personal effectiveness and presents his teachings through a series of habits, number five of which is: “Seek first to understand and then to be understood”.

More often than not, many of us listen with the intent to reply, not to understand. When someone else is speaking, we’re so busy concentrating on getting our point across, that we selectively hear only parts of the conversation - perhaps focusing on some of the words - and consequently, we misunderstand the meaning.  As Covey explains, “…we’re listening to ourselves prepare in our mind what we’re going to say. We filter everything we hear through our own life experiences, or our frame of reference. We’re checking what we hear against our own experience or ‘autobiography’ and consequently, we decide prematurely what the other person means before he/she finishes communicating”. Sound familiar?

Learning to listen offers great advantages and is essential for effective leadership. Entrepreneur and founder of the Virgin Group, Sir Richard Branson, offers his top 5 tips for starting a successful business and it’s no surprise to find that his number one piece of advice is to listen more than you talk'. Leaders who make listening a high priority develop strong relationships and encourage commitment and trust.

Seeking first to understand is about taking time out to see if we’ve stepped into the shoes of the speaker, rather than acting on making an assumption.  In other words, ask before responding – this allows us to tailor a response appropriately and in an adequate way.

Here are a few tips to encourage effective listening:

  • Make eye contact – good eye contact shows the speaker that you’re genuinely interested and engaged.
  • Be present – it is however possible to make eye contact and let your mind wander at the same time. More often than not, the speaker will notice this so make sure you remain focused.
  • Reflect – paraphrase back to the speaker what they’ve said. This can help to clarify your understanding and also shows the speaker you’re engaged.
  • Remain neutral – don’t give away any signs that you’re eager to respond, otherwise the speaker will realise you’re already focusing on your answer rather than listening to what they’re saying.
  • Probe - effective probing is non-judgmental and flows from what has previously been said. Good probing questions ask for elaboration or clarification (not enquiries based on your own experience).

And of course, in order for this to become a habit, it takes practice. Next time you’re having a conversation, think about the challenges you face in being able to truly understand the other person. We’d love to hear how you get on. Contact Tania at

Posted on Thu, March 24, 2016 in Coaching General Leadership Personal Development
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