Seek first to understand, then to be understood

The key to good communication

ListeningBeing heard is so close to being loved that for the average person, they are almost indistinguishable. –David Augsburger

It’s the greatest thought on communication I’ve ever heard. It will heal and deepen relationships. Master this mantra and you’ll do well in life; ignore it and you’ll frustrate yourself and others. Stephen Covey said, “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.”

Listen first.

The “low-grade fever” of impoverished relationships is poor listening. All good communication involves dialogue—I will listen to you and I want you to listen to me. But who listens first? Choose to be the one who listens first.

People will be more inclined to listen to you once they realize you want to listen to them.

Listen with the intent to understand.

There is a difference between simply hearing (an auditory function) and really listening, which involves our intellect and emotions. Listening involves more than just being quiet. When conversing with another person, do you truly want to know what he or she is thinking and feeling? Listening begins as an attitude that is based on a genuine desire to understand what others are saying. It is a value to embrace, not an inconvenience to be tolerated.

Here are some suggestions on how to listen well:

  • Some people struggle with communicating so sometimes, in our attempt to understand what someone is trying to say, we must “read between the lines,” interpret body language, and patiently try to decipher what the person is trying to say. While this seems to be an unreasonable demand (why can’t we just establish the basic rule of, “Say what you mean and mean what you say”?) it is often necessary if we truly want to seek first to understand.
  • Concentrate on the speaker; do not be distracted.
  • Do not interrupt, talk over, or finish the speaker’s sentences.
  • Be patient. When the speaker pauses it does not necessarily mean he is finished speaking.
  • While the other person is talking, resist formulating your response. At this point your job is to listen.
  • When the other person has finished talking you may need to clarify what you think he said, to ensure you have understood him.

Share your thoughts in a rational way.

I will choose to listen to you first, but the conversation is not over until I have a chance to share my thoughts. My eagerness to listen to you does not diminish my desire and right, to vocalize my thoughts. I will work hard at crafting my words carefully and will communicate clearly because I want you to understand exactly what I am saying. First, I will respond to what you have just said, but then I may introduce a new topic.

The most basic of all human needs is the need to be understood. The best way to understand people is to listen to them.

Click here to read about hinderances to listening.

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Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

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8 thoughts on “Seek first to understand, then to be understood

  1. Great observations. The lessons here on ‘listening’ seem so fundamental that we take for granted that we can easily adhere to them. But very few people do practice good listening. Radio and TV talk show hosts are an excellent example. Very few of these ‘communications experts’ practice the listening skills that Don has provided us. Bill O’Reilly from FOX News is the quintessential poor listener. He will ask a question and will seldom allow the guest to fully respond. His message: My thoughts are more important than yours.

    Thank you Don for your usual outstanding insights.

    • Ted, thanks for sharing your thoughts. I don’t listen to Fox News or MSNBC for the exact reason you mention. To begin with, they aren’t really news channels, just biased commentary. And the “communication” is so lopsided. Thanks for commenting. Don

  2. I loved this article. So sad, that so many (mostly women) don’t realize the hurt they cause by “Spilling everything they know to everyone they know”. The first time it happened to me I made a “pledge” I’d never pass on anything I heard about anyone. I’m not saying I’m perfect….by NO means…I’m just saying that “gossip” hurts everyone and we should never repeat anything we hear. That is my motto and I’m sticking to it. Smiling! Tadge

    • Tadge, You’re so right; confidentiality in conversations is so important. You have always been a thoughtful and kind communicator. Don

  3. I am a hairdresser,I have the opportunity to listen a lot . I think out of 20 clients there may be one who is interested in listening . That is good because I do not like to talk. They are paying for my time ,so I let them talk. I try to listen, but sometimes its difficult and keep my mind on my work.

    • Sandra, I bet you’re a good listener; that’s why people feel the freedom to talk to you. I, too, don’t like to talk a lot, which gives me (us) an “inside track” on listening 🙂