Seek First to Understand


We were sitting in a park near the house on a beautiful mid-summer day. My son declared, “But, Dad, you don’t understand!” How could he believe that I didn’t understand? I went through those teen years and high school myself. It had not been that long since I was his age and I had already thought through why he would take his stance. I went ahead and asked him to elaborate on why he didn’t want to comply with a school policy. Hearing his explanation was a real eye opener and it made me change my stance on the issue even though I thought I already understood. Seeking first to understand, then to be understood could very well be the most powerful principle of interpersonal relations according to Stephen Covey. This is the 5th habit of the “7 Habits of Highly Effective People.”

Private Victory

Habit 1: Be Proactive – Principles of Personal Vision
Habit 2: Begin With the End in Mind – Principles of Personal Leadership
Habit 3: Put First Things First – Principles of Personal Management

Public Victory

Habit 4: Seek Win / Win Solutions – Principles of Interpersonal Leadership
Habit 5: Seek First to Understand, Then to Be Understood – Principles of Empathic Communication

Seeking first to understand requires empathic listening. Covey teaches that while empathic listening is listening to understand, most people listen to prepare their reply. This is not ignoring, pretending, or selective listening, but listening with the intent to fully understand the other person emotionally and intellectually. Only after you fully understand the other person do you seek to be understood. You significantly increase the credibility of your ideas when you have demonstrated an understanding of their concerns. This skill is critical to implementing change and overcoming the resistance to change. Let’s look at how this plays out in the lean factory:

An operator brings a safety concern to light during a shift meeting. The Production Manager feels a bit defensive since the operator works for him and is calling out a concern for a procedure that he authorized and believes is safe. The Manager puts his defensiveness aside and suggests that they meet on the production line after the meeting. The operator demonstrates the issue and the Production Manager is surprised to see that this operator has to stretch further to get the samples because she is nearly a foot shorter than he is. They both quickly agree on an alternative technique that works for operators of any height. The operator buys into the new procedure because her concerns were understood and she was part of the solution.

In another example, the Quality Manager informs the Production Manager of a major hold from the previous night. She can’t understand how so many operators missed it for so long and says it’s the biggest hold in the history of the plant. Instead of jumping to conclusions, the two managers interview all of the operators involved with the intention to fully understand what kept them from catching the quality defect sooner. Based on those interviews, they are able to implement systems including supporting documents and photographs that clearly define what is in specification and what is out of spec. The operators buy into the new procedures because their concerns were understood and they were part of the solution.

Seeking first to understand is a powerful tool. It is critical to interpersonal relationships both at work and at home. Seeking to understand enabled me to give better guidance to my son that mid-summer day and to be a better leader at work. What challenges are you facing that could be solved if people understood you better? Seek first to understand and you will become a better leader.

View all 7 Habits

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About Christian Paulsen

Christian Paulsen is an Executive Consultant with 20 years of Lean Manufacturing. Chris adds value to organizations by driving process improvement and bottom line savings. Chris intends to help others by sharing the lessons learned after a quarter century of operational leadership, marriage, parenting, and even longer as a Cubs fan. Your comments on this blog are welcome. You can also connect with Chris via LinnkedIn, Twitter, and Facebook in the right sidebar. Chris welcomes your comments. Christian's professional services are available by contacting him through LinkedIn (right side bar)
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12 Responses to Seek First to Understand

  1. I think a lot of people knows Covey’s work. But you do a very interesting post on how to implement it on practice… Thanks for sharing.

    I got curious about the boy… what was his argument that opened your eyes?



    • Gonzalo,

      Thank you for your comments. I hope that readers who like the post will read the book or will be reminded of what they already learned from Covey. My son shared how the policy affected him and it was not at all what I was expecting. He had valid points and I decided the decision was his to make. His desired path worked better than I expected and he came into full compliance by the time school started in the fall. The value was that he felt respected and it built our relationship.

      Thanks again,

  2. Love the intro to your post… yes, waiting to understand before pushing your viewpoint (or assuming what you think you know is correct) is critical in any relationship… in business or parenting.

    • Diane,

      Thank you for your comments. It is very tempting for most of us to jump into getting the other party, especially our children, to understand us. Writing this post was a great exercise for me to remind myself of what I want to stand for at home and at work.

      Thank you,

  3. Roberta says:

    One of the hardest things in the world for so many people is to not have the “yes but” conversations. Part of all relationships is the 3 A’s – Acceptance, Appreciation and Acknowledgement.
    This was a great way of using Covey to express the same message.

  4. Reno Lovison says:

    Understanding begins with listening, which is something many people forget to do.

  5. constance williamson says:

    Hi Chris,
    I enjoyed your “take” on Covey’s book, especially how you applied one of the principles to your Son’s situation. I look forward to future posts on your blog.

  6. Rosy Prose says:

    Just read another blog about the beautiful art of listening. It’s probably the singly most important skill anyone ever learns. Enjoyed the post very much. Rosy

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