Using Empathic Listening to Collaborate

When you are in a conversation, do you listen with your own autobiographical filter? Or do you listen to actually understand the speaker? We continue our Leadership Hall of Fame series, a year-long look at the top business books and authors, with an excerpt from The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People (1989) by Stephen R. Covey.

The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People

The habit to “seek first to understand” involves a very deep shift in paradigm. We typically
seek first to be understood. Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they
listen with the intent to reply. They’re either speaking or preparing to speak. They’re
filtering everything through their own paradigms, reading their autobiography into other
people’s lives.


“Oh, I know exactly how you feel!”

“I went through the very same thing. Let me tell you about my experience.”

They’re constantly projecting their own home movies onto other people’s
behavior. They prescribe their own glasses for everyone with whom they interact.


If they have a problem with someone–a son, a daughter, a spouse, an
employee–their attitude is, “That person just doesn’t understand.”

A father once told me, “I can’t understand my kid. He just won’t listen to me at

“Let me restate what you just said,” I replied. “You don’t understand your son
because he won’t listen to you?”


“That’s right,” he replied.

“Let me try again,” I said. “You don’t understand your son because he won’t listen
to you?”

“That’s what I said,” he impatiently replied.


“I thought that to understand another person, you needed to listen to him,” I

“Oh!” he said. There was a long pause. “Oh!” he said again, as the light began to
dawn. “Oh, yeah! But I do understand him. I know what he’s going through. I went
through the same thing myself. I guess what I don’t understand is why he won’t listen to

This man didn’t have the vaguest idea of what was really going on inside his boy’s
head. He looked into his own head and thought he saw the world, including his boy.
That’s the case with so many of us. We’re filled with our own lightness, our own
autobiography. We want to be understood. Our conversations become collective
monologues, and we never really understand what’s going on inside another human


When another person speaks, we’re usually “listening” at one of four levels. We
may be ignoring another person, not really listening at all. We may practice pretending.
“Yeah. Uh-huh. Right.” We may practice selective listening, hearing only certain parts of
the conversation. We often do this when we’re listening to the constant chatter of a
preschool child. Or we may even practice attentive listening, paying attention and
focusing energy on the words that are being said. But very few of us ever practice the
fifth level, the highest form of listening, empathic listening.

When I say empathic listening, I am not referring to the techniques of “active”
listening or “reflective” listening, which basically involve mimicking what another
person says. That kind of listening is skill-based, truncated from character and
relationships, and often insults those “listened” to in such a way. It is also essentially
autobiographical. If you practice those techniques, you may not project your
autobiography in the actual interaction, but your motive in listening is autobiographical.
You listen with reflective skills, but you listen with intent to reply, to control, to

When I say empathic listening, I mean listening with intent to understand. I mean
seeking first to understand, to really understand. It’s an entirely different paradigm.
Empathic (from empathy) listening gets inside another person’s frame of
reference. You look out through it, you see the world the
way they see the world, you understand their paradigm, you understand how they feel.


Empathy is not sympathy. Sympathy is a form of agreement, a form of judgment.
And it is sometimes the more appropriate emotion and response. But people often feed on
sympathy. It makes them dependent. The essence of empathic listening is not that you
agree with someone; it’s that you fully, deeply, understand that person, emotionally as
well as intellectually.

Empathic listening involves much more than registering, reflecting, or even
understanding the words that are said. Communications experts estimate, in fact, that
only 10% of our communication is represented by the words we say. Another 30
percent is represented by our sounds, and 60% by our body language. In empathic
listening, you listen with your ears, but you also, and more importantly, listen with your
eyes and with your heart. You listen for feeling, for meaning. You listen for behavior.
You use your right brain as well as your left. You sense, you intuit, you feel.

Empathic listening is so powerful because it gives you accurate data to work with.
Instead of projecting your own autobiography and assuming thoughts, feelings, motives
and interpretation, you’re dealing with the reality inside another person’s head and heart.
You’re listening to understand. You’re focused on receiving the deep communication of
another human soul.


In addition, empathic listening is the key to making deposits in Emotional Bank
Accounts, because nothing you do is a deposit unless the other person perceives it as
such. You can work your fingers to the bone to make a deposit, only to have it turn into a
withdrawal when a person regards your efforts as manipulative.

Empathic listening is, in and of itself, a tremendous deposit in the Emotional
Bank Account. It’s deeply therapeutic and healing because it gives a person psychological

If all the air were suddenly sucked out of the room you’re in right now, what
would happen to your interest in this book? You wouldn’t care about the book; you
wouldn’t care about anything except getting air. Survival would be your only motivation.


But now that you have air, it doesn’t motivate you. This is one of the greatest
insights in the field of human motivation: Satisfied needs do not motivate. It’s only the
unsatisfied need that motivates. Next to physical survival, the greatest need of a human
being is psychological survival–to be understood, to be affirmed, to be
validated, to be appreciated.

When you listen with empathy to another person, you give that person
psychological air. And after that vital need is met, you can then focus on influencing or
problem solving. This need for psychological air impacts communication in every area of

Reprinted with permission from The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. Copyright © 1989 by Stephen R. Covey. Excerpted with permission by Free Press, a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.