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Guiding Principle #4: Seek First to Understand, Then be Understood

Updated: Jan 3

In a world teeming with diverse opinions, viewpoints, and communication styles, genuinely understanding others before seeking to be understood is a pivotal skill, especially in leadership. This concept, famously encapsulated in Stephen R. Covey's seminal work "The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People," is a cornerstone for effective communication and leadership.



Covey's phrase, "Seek first to understand, then to be understood," is the fifth habit in his book. It underscores the significance of empathetic listening and understanding in human interactions. Originally, Covey suggested this principle as a means to foster the open, two-way communication essential for resolving conflicts and building meaningful relationships. From the employer/employee relationship perspective, we know being "heard" creates a sense of value that imparts a sense of belonging, motivation, satisfaction, and ultimately innovation and growth.


As leaders, our role transcends merely hearing what our team says. It's about genuinely understanding where they're coming from – their perspectives, their challenges, what drives them, and having a genuine capacity to relate to what their team is feeling. In leadership, embracing this principle isn't only about being a good listener; it's about listening with the objective of empathizing. Leaders who listen actively don't simply hear the words spoken; they actually hear the emotion with which the words are said. They are validating and connecting to them on the basis of their own experiences, resulting in genuine compassion.


Warning...My bandwagon...A leader must be intentional about listening to their team members WITHOUT INTERRUPTING (also an excellent LIFE lesson; this is perhaps my husband's favorite principle to remind me of). It is not uncommon for leaders to feel they should be the ones with all the answers, the plan, or the guidance their team members need. They often hear the first few words of what the other person is saying, then assume what has yet to be said. Interjecting a response before hearing the specific issue is one of the highest forms of disrespect, disregard, and ignorance. Rule of thumb: once the person has finished speaking, wait 3 seconds before responding. It is not uncommon for someone to pause in conversation to gather thoughts or piece together connecting points; waiting 3 seconds will ensure you have allowed the other person ample time to finish while providing you a bit of time to reflect on a response.

*HINT: if you hear the following phrases, it may mean you are a compulsive interrupter:

1. "What I actually meant was..."

2. "That's not what I was really asking/saying..."

3. "I wasn't quite finished with what I was saying..."

4. "Wait just a minute, please....", or "Hold on, let me finish..."

5. "You might have misunderstood my question..."


Asking open-ended questions and seeking accurate understanding through reflective responses ("Let me confirm I have understood accurately") is another critical component of this principle. It's not about leading them to a predetermined answer, but rather, it's about exploring their thoughts and opinions. Well-positioned questions open the door to deeper understanding, allowing us to see the full picture from their point of view.


When we fail to understand our team members (colleagues, family, and friends), we risk creating an environment of low trust and respect, poor decision-making, increased conflict, low morale, and poor productivity. Team members feel misunderstood, unappreciated, and devalued. All of which lead to low job satisfaction and engagement and increased risk of turnover intentions.


In conclusion, "Seek first to understand, then to be understood" is not just a communication strategy; rather, it's a leadership philosophy. By embodying this principle, leaders can build stronger, more empathetic, and cohesive teams. The true art of leadership lies in understanding the diverse tapestry of human experiences within a team and using that understanding as a foundation for growth, collaboration, and collective success.

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