Suppose you've been having trouble with your eyes lately and decide to see an optometrist for help. After briefly listening to your complaint, he removes his glasses and hands them to you.
"Put these on," he says. "I've worn this pair of glasses for ten years, and they've 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 scolds. "And after all I've done to help you."
What are the chances of you going back to see that optometrist? Very low. Why? Because you don't have confidence in someone who doesn't diagnose before they prescribe. But how often do we diagnose before we prescribe?
We tend to rush in and fix things with good advice. But we often need to take the time to diagnose and understand the problem first. The most important principle in interpersonal communication is: Seek first to understand, then to be understood, which is Stephen Covey's fifth habit of highly effective people.
My name is Jacob Curtis. I am a CPA and co-owner of Utah Valley Quilting and founder of Curtis Accounting Solutions, where we help quilt shops piece together financial freedom by doing bookkeeping, payroll, and taxes and providing proven business strategy and coaching.
With all of the differences between you and the people you are trying to work with to manage resources and accomplish results, how do you do it? How do you surpass your limitations and perceptions to cooperatively deal with the issues and find Win/Win solutions? The answer is to seek first to understand and then to be understood.
Let's first focus on how to understand. There are four general forms of communication: reading, writing, speaking, and listening. We have spent years developing the first three, but you probably have yet to spend time developing your listening skills, specifically empathetic listening.
Proverbs 18:13 (CSB) says, "The one who gives an answer before he listens--this is foolishness and disgrace for him."
Most people listen with the intent to reply, not to understand. Empathetic listening is listening with the intent to understand from the speaker's perspective, not their own. Empathetic listening gets you inside another person's frame of reference. You look at the world through their lens and see it the way they see it.
Empathy is not sympathy. Sympathy is a form of agreement and judgment. It is sometimes an appropriate response, but people feed off it, making them dependent on sympathy, which is unhealthy. The essence of empathetic listening is not that you agree with them; but that you fully, deeply understand that person, emotionally and intellectually.
Empathetic listening involves much more than registering, reflecting, or even understanding the words that are said. Empathetic listening is listening with your ears, eyes, and heart. You listen for feeling, for meaning, for behavior. You sense, and you feel.
James tells us to "be quick to listen, slow to speak..." (James 1:19 CSB). And in Romans 12:15 (CSB), Paul tells us to "Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep."
Empathetic listening is powerful because it gives you accurate data to work with. Instead of projecting your viewpoint and assuming thoughts, feelings, motives, and interpretations, you're dealing with the reality inside the other person's head and heart. You're listening to understand. You're focused on receiving the deep communication of another human soul.
Some response techniques are less effective in showing that you hear what they say. These autobiographical responses mirror their words back to them from your perspective rather than theirs.
For example, when advising, you offer what you would feel in their situation and how you might deal with that problem if it were up to you.
When probing, you ask questions from your frame of reference rather than theirs.
When interpreting, you explain how you see the situation given your experience and attach your meaning to it.
When evaluating, you judge them and their thoughts, either agreeing or disagreeing.
These approaches and responses devalue the other person and their feelings and communicate that you are more interested in your thoughts than theirs.
You will only be able to see the world as others see it once you develop the desire, your character, and empathetic listening skills. There are four developmental stages to developing empathetic listening skills: mimicking content, rephrasing the content, reflecting the feeling, and then combining rephrasing content and reflecting feeling.
The first and least effective stage is to mimic content. This is often insulting to people, but it at least causes you to start listening. Mimicking context is easy. You listen to words that come out, and then you repeat them.
For example, "Boy, Mom, I've had it. School is for the birds." You say something like, "You've had it. You think school is for the birds." You did not advise, probe, evaluate, or interpret. But you have at least shown that you are paying attention.
Stage two is rephrasing the content. It's a little more effective but still limited to verbal communication.
Continuing our example, "Boy, Mom, I've had it. School is for the birds." You say, "You don't want to go to school anymore." This time you have put their meaning in the words. You are thinking with the logical part of your brain.
The third stage is reflecting feelings. Continuing our example, "Boy, Mom, I've had it. School is for the birds." You say, "You're feeling really frustrated." You are not paying as much attention to what they say but how they feel about it.
The last combines stages two and three; you rephrase the content and reflect the feeling. Continuing our example, "Boy, Mom, I've had it. School is for the birds." You say, "You're really frustrated about school." Frustrated is the feeling and school in the content. You are using both sides of your brain to understand both sides of their communication.
When you reach this fourth stage of empathetic listening, you are authentically seeking to understand. You allow them to vent a little and work through their thoughts and feelings.
Let's follow through with our example conversation with our fictitious teenage child.
"Boy, Mom, I've had it. School is for the birds." They are saying, "I want to talk with you."
You respond, "You're really frustrated with school." Your child is thinking, "That's right. That's how I feel."
And they reply with, "I sure am. It's totally impractical. I'm not getting a thing out of it."
You respond empathetically, "You feel like school is not doing you any good." And they think, "Is that what I mean?"
They reply, "Well, yeah. I'm just not learning anything that will help me. I mean, look at Joe. He dropped out, and he's working on cars. He's making money. Now that's practical."
You say, "You feel that Joe really has the right idea." And they think, "Well, maybe..."
And they reply, "Well, I guess he does in a way. He is really making money now. But I bet he'll be upset with himself in a few years."
You reply, "You think Joe is going to feel he made the wrong decision."
They respond, "He's got to. Just look at what he's giving up. I mean, if you don't have an education, you can't make it in this world."
You say, "Education is important," rephrasing and reflecting their meaning.
They reply excitedly, "Oh, yeah! If you don't get a diploma, you can't get a job or go to college. What are you going to do? You've got to get an education."
You say, "It's important to your future."
"It is," they say, "And you know what? I'm really worried. Listen, you won't tell Dad, will you?"
You say, "I get it. You don't want your father to find out."
"Well, no, not really, " they say, " I guess you can tell him. He'll find out eventually, anyways. Today, I took this reading test that said I am on a fourth-grade reading level, and I'm a high school junior! I'm going to fail. I figure that since I will fail, I should just quit first. But I don't want to quit."
"You feel torn," you reply, "You're in the middle of a dilemma."
"What do you think I should do, Mom?" they ask.
How many times did you want to say something different in this conversation? Lots of times, I'd imagine. But what a difference it makes when we seek first to understand and get to the real problem--when we diagnose first.
As long as you respond logically, you can effectively ask questions and give counsel. But the moment you respond emotionally, you can lose all the trust you've gained and will need to start empathetically listening. Once you have gained enough trust, you can now influence and transform.
Sometimes transformation requires no outside counsel. Often when people have the chance to talk through it, they resolve the problem alone.
I have gone through the skills, but skill alone is insufficient. You also need a sincere desire to understand. People resent any attempt to manipulate them.
Empathetic listening takes time, but it takes less time than it takes to back up and correct misunderstandings.
As you practice empathetic listening, you communicate that you sincerely desire to understand them and are making an effort. Sincerity is a prerequisite to trust. And trust is needed to accomplish significant results. The more trust between you and those you are trying to work with--including employees, vendors, customers, spouses, and family--the more you can accomplish.
For the second half of the equation--then to be understood. Knowing how to be understood is equally vital in reaching Win/Win solutions.
When you present your own ideas clearly, specifically, visually, and most important, contextually--in the context of a deep understanding of their views and concerns--you significantly increase the credibility of your ideas.
Seeking first to understand, then to be understood, lifts you to greater accuracy and integrity in your interactions. And people will know that you're sharing ideas that you genuinely believe, considering all known facts and viewpoints, that will benefit everyone.
In business, set up one-on-ones with your employees. Listen to them, understand them. Set up stakeholder information systems in your business to get honest, accurate feedback at every level: from customers, suppliers, and employees. Make the human element as important as the financial or technical element. You save tremendous amounts of time, energy, and money when you tap into the human resources of a business at every level. When you listen, you inspire loyalty that goes beyond the eight-to-five physical demands of the job.
Seek first to understand. Before problems arise, before you try to evaluate and prescribe, before you present your ideas--seek to understand.
When we deeply understand each other, we open the door to creative solutions. Our differences are no longer stumbling blocks. Instead, they become stepping stones to synergy.
I would love to hear from you as you apply this habit. Please email me at email@example.com and tell me how it's going.