Highly Effective Listening

Many years ago, I had a boss who told us we had to read Stephen Covey’s “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People”. He told us a story from the book about deliberately setting one’s watch several minutes ahead in order to be more proactive. A wise guy colleague of ours boasted that he was so proactive he set his watch 24 hours ahead! From that moment on, we called him “Mr. Proactive”.

But what I want to talk about are a couple of Covey’s ideas that are related to listening. First, Covey states his 5th habit of highly effective people as: “Seek first to understand, then to be understood”. Covey makes sense, of course. But we can actually go a little deeper.

In order to really understand others, we need to listen to their stories. We are, each and every one of us, the results of our stories. Our stories give us confidence and direction. They also hold us back sometimes. For example, the stories of how we fell in and out of love has a big impact on our current relationships. The stories of how we aligned with certain political or religious views is also very telling. In order to work with people, in order to really understand people, we have to first listen to their stories.

The second idea from Covey that I want to talk about is this one: “Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.” Again, things are often more nuanced. We try to minimally understand. We try to understand just enough so that we can offer quick fixes, or minimize the issues. Our sneaky goal is to avoid following the emotional flow of the story, and to find ways to end the topic of conversation, so we can talk about or do something else. We do not listen with the intent to immerse.

Immersion is emotional involvement, a commitment to follow the emotional currents of the story. It’s work, but it’s necessary. We certainly want others to extend the courtesy to us.

If you want to be highly effective, seek out people’s background stories first, and listen with the intent to immerse.

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