Covey’s Fifth Habit: Seek first to understand, then to be understood

Stephen R. Covey’s fifth habit of highly effective people suggests that we must first seek to understand others before we seek to be understood ourselves. He points to the importance of actively listening with the intent of understanding rather than the common response of speaking or preparing to speak. Covey calls this ’empathic listening’, and argues that it goes far beyond “registering, reflecting, or even understanding the words that are said.”

Covey draws on research that estimates that only one-tenth of our communications is conveyed through the words that we speak, whilst a third is represented by our sounds and almost two thirds by our gestures and body language. Empathic listening aims to understand meaning through “listening” to each of these communicative means: “you listen with your ears, but…more importantly, listen with your eyes and your heart.”

There are a number of skills involved in empathic listening, according to Covey, and they comprise of four developmental stages:

1. Mimic content – “active” or “reflective” listening (minimally effective)

2. Rephrase the content – reform the meaning in your own words and reflect it back to the person

3. Reflect feeling – paying greater attention to the way somebody feels about what they are saying.

4. Rephrase the content and reflect the feeling – this final stage gives the speaker “psychological air”. The listener is seeking to understand everything they are communicating, not only what they are saying through words. This is an important principle in cognitive coaching.


Once we seek to understand, then “knowing how to be understood is the other half of Habit 5.” In order to do this, Covey draws on the Greek philosophy ethospathoslogos.

Ethos is one’s “personal credibility, the faith people have in your integrity and competency.”

Pathos is the feeling, our empathy for others.

Logos refers to “the logic, the reasoning” component of the argument we are seeking to put forth.

Seeking first to understand others and then to be understood is within the Circle of Influence that Covey refers to earlier in his book, and it helps to expand that influence. Regardless of other people’s responses or behaviour, an individual can still attempt to understand. The more truly empathetic we are, the more opportunities for creative solutions that will present themselves, fostering more effective and productive relationships between people.


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