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The secret to effective communication

Do you listen to respond or to understand? Master the skills of empathetic listening, and you will gain an edge over 98% of other professional communicators.


Ever hear the old saying, “God gave us two ears but only one mouth, because he knew listening was harder”?

As you will see in today’s post and infographic, a Stuff Writers Like original, science backs up God on this one.

Recently I made an admission that I have a love-hate relationship with reading. But I’ve vowed to change that by reading a chapter of a book I actually want to read every day. One of the books on my reading list is Stephen Covey’s The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. (With more than 25 million copies sold, I figure it belongs on my list, too.)

While skimming the table of contents, one chapter in particular jumped out at me—”Habit 5: Seek First to Understand, Then to Be Understood.”

“Yep, he wrote that for me!” I thought. So I jumped right to it.

And, wow, what an incredibly powerful, life-changing 25 pages.

As Covey says in the chapter, many readers find Habit 5 to be the most powerful of all 7 Habits. (I’m almost finished with the book, and so far I agree. If you read nothing else from The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, I encourage you to read about Habit 5. If you are like 98% of professionals, as you will discover in the graphic below, who have no formal training on listening, developing this one habit can change your life.)

“Seek First to Understand, Then to Be Understood”—think about that for a moment.

How many of us seek first to have our viewpoint understood, only later to understand others’ viewpoints—sometimes after it’s too late? How many of us impatiently try to finish others’ sentences, fix others’ problems, or answer others’ questions before they finish communicating them? If you’re guilty, raise your hand high. (Ouch! A condor just hit mine it’s so high right now.)

As I read about Habit 5, I realized something important about myself. Perhaps it pertains to you, too—or someone you work with or care about. It is this: While I pride myself on being an intuitive problem-solver—though there’s nothing wrong with that inherently—a lifetime of solving my problems with my novel solutions has unfortunately trained me to jump straight to my ideas when others ask me to help solve their problems. (And sometimes when they don’t ask at all.)

Yes, I was the kid who jumped ahead on my work without reading the directions. Yes, I am the husband who offers his wife my advice when she’s simply telling me about her day. Yes, I am the colleague who interrupts others in a meeting, jumping straight to my solution before they come to their conclusions. Yes, I am the professional who takes action with my plan as others still lament their problems and brainstorm possible solutions.  Yes, I am the one looking back wondering why others just can’t keep up with me.

You might think, OK, some of these don’t sound so bad, but I assure you they are. You see, as a result of all this jumping ahead, I often jump so far ahead that I fail to notice I’ve left others drowning in my wake.

While 70%-90% may be acceptable in terms of statistical success, it’s not acceptable in terms of successful human interaction. What about the other 10%-30%? Therein may lie the root of the problem. (Tweet it!)
I have always internally excused this behavior, because more often than not—say 70%-90% of the time—my solution turns out to be a good fit. But here’s the kicker, my big takeaway from Covey, the one thing I have been missing all this time …

While 70%-90% may be acceptable in terms of statistical success, it’s not acceptable in terms of successful human interaction. What about the other 10%-30%? Therein may lie the root of the problem, and yet my quick-to-judgement, quick-to-action solution misses it entirely—as often as three out of every 10 scenarios (maybe more). When put that way, it’s clearly far too often.

What a horrible way to live; what a horrible person to live with; what a horrible colleague to work with.

Thankfully, Covey’s “Seek First to Understand, Then to Be Understood” principle changes all of that. (Or at least it helps me roll back years of bad listening habits.)

So with that in mind—and while I strongly encourage you to read the book for yourself—I have synthesized for you some of my biggest takeaways on listening from Stephen Covey and Albert Mehrabian, a UCLA professor of psychology best known for his research on verbal and nonverbal communication.

Please note that Mehrabian’s statistics come from his experiments dealing specifically with in-person, spoken communications of feelings and attitudes. While other researchers report similar findings in their own studies, Mehrabian’s data cannot be assumed true for all forms of communication.

How to Listen Effectively

So what are you waiting for? Stop listening simply to respond, and start listening to understand.

Have any other ideas or experiences about listening? Please share in the comments below.

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Gary Grimes

Founder and President at Copywriter Brands, LLC
A former journalist who sold out for the less romantic but more sustainable world of online marketing, Gary created Copywriter Brands, including StuffWritersLike.com, to help writers connect with each other and the people who hire us—but also to reclaim his love for journalism and storytelling.
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