top of page

Seek First to Understand

This is the fifth post in a 7-week series covering Stephen Covey's 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. If you missed the first four weeks, you can read them here.

I've been married for just over a year. The day after our wedding, Kent, the man who baptized me, facilitated our pre-marital counseling, and married us, asked if he could offer us one final piece of advice. He looked at Joenelle, then back at me, and without breaking eye contact said, "Jason, sometimes she will come to you with a problem. She is not looking for an answer, she is looking to be understood."

The fifth habit of highly effective people is Seek First to Understand, Then to be Understood. Covey points out that we spend years learning how to read, write, and speak, but rarely do we focus on fine-tuning our ability to listen. Most often when people are in engaged in a conversation, they're listening with the intent to respond, not to understand.

When we listen with the intent to respond, we usually do so using our own experience and will reply in one of four ways. We will:

  • Evaluate: Agree or disagree with what is said

  • Probe: Ask questions from our own frame of reference

  • Advise: Give counsel based on our own experience

  • Interpret: Try to figure out the person's motives and behavior based on our own motives and behavior

Covey calls this autobiographical listening. We're writing our own story into the conversation, instead of trying to empathize and understand the other person's story. By shifting from autobiographical listening, to empathetic listening, we embody the fifth habit.

How do we do this? Next time you're in a conversation, ask yourself, "Am I listening to gain understanding? Or am I listening to curate a response?" When the person is done speaking, you should be able to fill in the blanks of the following sentence accurately:

"You feel ___________ about _________."

Whether we are a teacher, spouse, sales person, or parent, we can improve every relationship we have by seeking first to understand, then to be understood.


While in a conversation, if you find yourself listening to reply, rather than to understand, stop the person and ask them to repeat what they said. This time, focus on empathetic listening.


What relationship could benefit most from a shift to empathetic listening?


“A wise old owl sat on an oak; The more he saw the less he spoke; The less he spoke the more he heard; Why aren't we like that wise old bird?” - Unknown

Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page