Learn to Listen Empathetically

Stephen R. Covey provides practical tips to improve your listening skills.

August 1, 2005

Few of us are trained to listen. Even if we appear to be paying attention, we’re usually just thinking about our response. Here are some techniques for improving your listening skills with your family—and with your clients—from The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Families (St. Martin's Griffin, 1998).

  • Mimic content. This is the least effective way to listen. All you’re doing is repeating to people what they just said. It’s not understanding, but at least it shows others that you’re listening.
  • Probe for deeper understanding. Ask questions, such as, “What are your concerns?” “What are your highest priorities in this situation?” This technique is similar to a doctor asking you questions about your symptoms before making a diagnosis.
  • Repeat responses in your own words. Begin your reflections with phrases such as “I sense you mean” and “What I hear you saying is.…”
  • Watch for nonverbal clues. This can be tone of voice, body language, and context that give clues to the underlying issues behind a person’s statement.
  • Offer feedback, but only when you’re sure you understand and the speaker feels you understand. Be sure to focus your feedback on “I”—“This is what I’ve observed.” “This is how I see it.” “I” messages are communication between equals. As soon as you start saying “you,” you’re starting to judge, not empathize.

To read Covey’s accompanying essay called “Family First” in the August 2005 issue of REALTOR® Magazine, click here.

Not only is Covey an internationally recognized author, speaker, teacher, and consultant, but he’s also the cofounder and vice chairman of Franklin Covey, a leading global professional services company with offices in 123 countries. The most recent of his many best-selling books is The 8th Habit: From Effectiveness to Greatness. He holds an M.B.A. from Harvard University and a Ph.D. from Brigham Young University.

Among the many awards Covey has received is the 2003 National Fatherhood of the Year award from the National Fatherhood Initiative. As the father of nine children and grandfather of 42, he says the award is the most meaningful one he’s ever received.

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