Habit Five: Understand First

There’s a common expression “you have two ears and one mouth, so you should listen twice as much as you talk”. The problem with this kind of thinking is that you will start to believe you should be talking a lot. It’s a rather self-centred viewpoint. From the moment we are born, we are surrounded by people. Granted, some of those people are idiots, but the reason they are that way is because they give their own opinion too much credit.

When we spend our time and energy talking and thinking about what we want to say, we lose. This folk wisdom is heading in the right direction, but it doesn’t take into account that there is often a lot more than two people around you. The math of listening twice as much as you talk only allows you to work in groups of three. Beyond that, you’ll be ignoring people who could likely create value for you.

I prefer to realise that people are always able to offer something, and even children will challenge our assumptions and biases if we allow them to. Some people are more qualified than others to provide insight, advice and instruction – and I want to gain everything I can from them. But my time is limited, and life places many demands on me. So I need to choose carefully who I will listen to.

I choose to listen to those who have experience where it’s recognisable. I choose to listen to those who have put time and effort into understanding the topic before speaking (i.e. the speaker at a talk rather than the heckler in the crowd. The one who posted the video or wrote the article rather than the one commenting on the part). It’s not a perfect filter, and I’m sure I’ve missed a lot because of it, but I’d say it is rather efficient, and should be accurate enough to provide some value.

So when I read Covey advising me to understand first, then to be understood, I think that there is likely to be something to it. He’s a recognised expert, and he’s written a book including this as a key topic.

It’s not really a difficult subject to understand, but it’s not always easy to do. Staying focused on understanding and listening may add more value than almost any other habit, but it’s so easy to get stuck on your own head because your thoughts are so accessible. However, to build teams and relationships that will last, that will do great things – it’s vital to understand first.

How do you practice this skill in your life?

Leave a comment below and let me know.

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  1. Pingback: Habit Six: Synergize | Strategic Ventures

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