“Communication is the most important skill in life. We spend most of our waking hours communicating. But consider this: You've spent years learning how to read and write, years learning how to speak. But what about listening?” - Stephen Covey
Dr. Stephen Covey asked that question and began offering a prescription for more effective interpersonal communications, first in his seminal 1989 book “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People” and later through lectures, consulting and many, many articles, stories and interviews.
Covey’s Habit 5: “Seek first to understand, then to be understood” was, for me, the most important of Covey’s lessons. It is also, arguably, the least embraced and effectively employed of the “Habits” all these years later.
Dr. Covey felt empathetic listening is the single most important dynamic in interpersonal relations. Yet…how many of us still occasionally “mail it in” at meetings and presentations? Or tune out a colleague who is describing an issue they feel is important (but that you don’t?) Or utter “uh-huh” ad nauseam to feign listening to friends and family? Right, uh-huh.
Effective, empathetic listening is more than just a management fad or HR training module. It is a primary building block of trust. Without it, all interactions become transactional, not relational.
To me, there is no surprise that trust is in such short supply in our organizations and society: we are simply not willing to listen to, much less understand, each other. We listen to respond, not to understand. We do not do the work of building trust with others not in our tribe.
“There are three words that contain the essence of seeking first to understand:
Ethos - Your personal credibility, the trust you inspire.
Pathos - Your empathetic side, showing you are in alignment with the emotional thrust of another person's communication.
Logos - The reasoning part of the presentation.
Habit 5 is powerful because it is right in the middle of your Circle of Influence, meaning it is something you can always do because it is within your control. As you do it, your Circle of Influence begins to expand. Habit 5 is something you can practice…”
What do can we each do to listen better, build better relationships and promote better understanding in our organizations and our personal lives?
The silent treatment: for starters, don’t talk, and don’t interrupt, when someone else is speaking.
Get physical: be attentive, demonstrate that you are engaged. Non-verbal communication is incredibly important in building connection.
Demonstrate understanding: repeat the key points the speaker has made. Ask questions, as and when appropriate, or for clarification. Insightful questions build trust by demonstrating genuine interest.
Invite a give-and-take: Give feedback, respectfully. Find a common ground and work to explore it. Have an actual conversation instead of an exchange of data or message points.
For all of the words we generate each day, poor communication seems the norm, rather than exception. Except for maybe predator alerts on the savanna back in our formative days, it doesn’t seem that that our communication skills have kept pace with our evolution, and certainly not our technologies. (Which provided the basis for a very nice living for me and my colleagues back in the day.)
Communicating effectively takes both good intention and hard work. It is a discipline and a commitment. It takes making listening a valued practice.
And, sadly, even when commitment, skill and discipline are present, there’s no guarantee of results that you seek without reciprocity. It takes two to tango.
“The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.” - George Bernard Shaw
But keep trying… and rise above the noise.