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7 Habits of Highly Effective Agile Transformation: Seek First to Understand, Then to Be Understood

Stephanie Davis Vice President of Product Excellence
Reading: 7 Habits of Highly Effective Agile Transformation: Seek First to Understand, Then to Be Understood

Habit 5:  Seek First To Understand, Then To Be Understood 

We are 4 down and 3 to go in our exploration of Stephen R. Covey’s book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, with regard to effective Agile Transformation. Our focus this time is Habit 5 – Seek First To Understand, Then To Be Understood. Quite frankly, Habit 5 is the answer to Habit 4 – Think Win/Win or rather, seeking first to understand makes Win/Win possible.   

Habit 5 centers around the highest form of listening, what is referred to as “empathic listening.” With this Habit, Covey challenges us to develop the powerful skill of empathetic listening to first diagnose, seek to deeply understand, before prescribing a fix to the problem.   

A Paradigm Shift

Empathetic listening involves a significant paradigm shift. For most, we seek first to be understood and not to understand.  We listen through our own paradigms with the intent to reply and are either speaking or preparing to speak. When we listen, we may pretend to listen, do selective listening, attempt to be attentive, or even all together ignore. Furthermore, keep in mind that empathy is not sympathy. Sympathy is a form of agreement. Empathy is understanding. You don’t have to agree with someone to understand them. 

With empathic listening, you are listening with your whole self; it’s not just your ears hearing the words. Your eyes see their body language and behavior and your heart senses the meaning and feelings behind their words.   

We’d all agree that communication is probably one of the most important life skills, however, you can’t be an effective communicator with technique alone. You must develop the skills of empathetic listening. As Covey points out, while we all learned to read and write over many years of school, there was little to no focus on empathetic listening or listening with the intent to deeply understand.   

Allowing For Basic Human Needs

Covey introduces the concept of “psychological air” pointing out that, after physical survival, our greatest human need is psychological survival or the need to be understood, affirmed, validated, and 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 and problem solving.” 

So, what gets in the way of us giving someone psychological air? While this seems simple enough, we often rush to fix the problem. We tend to respond from our own perspective by evaluating, probing, advising, or interpreting rather than seeking to deeply understand.   

Toward providing psychological air, Covey offers four developmental stages of empathetic listening: 

  • Stage 1 – Mimic Content:  Simply listen and repeat the words back. It’s the first step towards empathetic listening, however, the least effective alone. 
  • Stage 2 – Rephrase the Content:  Put what you heard into your own words. This is slightly more effective but still limited. 
  • Stage 3 – Reflect Feeling:  Listen (and sense) for feelings and reflect them back.  
  • Stage 4 – Rephrase the Content & Reflect Feeling:  A combination of stages 2 and 3 is considered most effective. Put the content in your own words AND reflect back the feelings you sensed. 

Stage 4 is the greatest form of empathetic listening where you sincerely seek to understand, ultimately giving the person the psychological air they need. And, from that human connection that is made, comes trust and influence. On this topic of trust and influence, I would be remiss if I didn’t tell you to check out the perceptive work that LeadingAgile has done with the Trust Influence Loop, a model for building and maintaining a strong partnership with our clients throughout their Transformation.  

Habit 5 is what I like to think of as easier said than done. Empathetic listening is easy to say, but not so easy to do. Covey reminds us that it takes an investment of time, however, when done right, empathetic listening can produce the greatest returns. 

Toward Influencing Change

Covey declares, “…in order to have influence, you have to be influenced.” To influence others, you must first show that you can be influenced.  This is where empathic listening comes in.  When you open yourself up to being influenced, you are vulnerable and there is some inherent risk in that.  However, on the upside, you may learn a thing or two that will lead to you ultimately being understood.  Or rather, once you understand, you can seek to be understood.   

Therein lies the nugget of gold that leads us back to effective Agile Transformation. We’ve talked about how an Agile Transformation is a massive exercise in change management. To change someone or something, as in an Agile Transformation, you must be able to influence them. This goes for the consultants working from the outside-in as well as the change champions working from the inside-out, bottom-up, or top-down.   

You can’t dictate, mandate, or even prescribe an Agile Transformation and there is certainly nothing one-size-fits-all about it, though some may have you believe otherwise. You must first hear their woes and see their pains and give them that psychological air that they so desire. An Agile Transformation must be influenced, carefully and gently. And, emphatic listening, seeking first to understand the people and the organization, is key. Covey even refers to this as turning a “transactional opportunity” into a “transformational opportunity.” As he points out, this act of diagnosing before you prescribe, is the mark of a true professional, be it the doctor, the mechanic, the Agile Transformation consultant, or the change champion. 

Next Up

With Habit 5 – Seek First To Understand, Then To Be Understood, we focused on the key life skill of empathetic listening and learned just what it takes to get to Win/Win as part of Habit 4.  As a reminder, Habits 1 through 3 had us Be Proactive, Begin With The End In Mind, and Put First Things First. Toward an effective Agile Transformation, we now know that a proactive organization (Habit 1) with a solid end state vision (Habit 2) that focuses on what’s important (Habit 3) can get to Win/Win (Habit 4) by seeking first to understand (Habit 5). Next up, we will explore Habit 6 – Synergize. It’s not just a buzzword anymore! 

Next Ushering in a New Era of Agile

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