Seek first to understand…

My dad has always said: “You have two ears and one mouth for a reason” – a simple but effective way of reminding me how important it is to listen (as does this picture by David Shrigley!).

This is underlined in a book my dad gave me – ‘The 7 habits of highly effective people’ by Stephen Covey, where the fifth habit is ‘Seek first to understand, then to be understood’. This is about empathic listening, really deeply listening to the other person without any ‘autobiographical’ responses such as probing, evaluating, advising or interpreting. The main practical skill to use in empathic listening is rephrasing content and reflecting the feeling e.g.

Son: “Dad I give up! School is boring.”      Dad: “You’re really frustrated about school.”

Here frustration is the unsaid feeling being reflected and school is the content.

It seems that listening is becoming a more important topic of thought today, probably partly because our world is so noisy/frenetic. A good recent example is the BBC/British Library collaboration ‘The Listening Project’. Although its aim is to build up a picture of our lives today, its focus on doing this through recorded conversation serves as a reminder of the power of one to one conversation to create deep connection.

This focus on conversation is vital in a world where, according to a recent TED Talk by Sherry Turkle, we “…sacrifice conversation for mere connection.”

This talk also feeds into the growing need to think more about the level of our listening skills today. Turkle addresses this through the use of technology – one point she makes is that tweeting and texting doesn’t allow us to really learn about each other, to understand each other. She suggests we can end up hiding from each other even though we are constantly connected to each other. Certainly my life has more texting than talking nowadays.

However, I think its OK to have a world with texts and tweets as long as they exist alongside conversation and listening. I think what would help is a more conscious focus on listening skills – I have found that since I started focusing on my listening skills I realised how much I wasn’t really listening before. It’s so easy to fall into the trap of waiting for the other person to finish so you can share your related experience.

Improving listening skills will also help with creativity and idea generation – as Covey says in his book: “When we really, deeply understand each other, we open the door to creative solutions and third alternatives” Who knows what great idea you might miss if you’re not listening properly?

Do you practise empathic listening in your facilitation? How can you improve your everyday listening skills?

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One response to “Seek first to understand…

  1. What about one of the other 7 Habits-Begin with the end in mind?Another good path for life!

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