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4 tips to Improve your Communication: Seek to Understand

This article is based on the 5th habit described by Stephen Covey: Seek first to understand, then to be understood.

There is a coaching principle called The Map is Not the Territory. Simply put, think of your local area and now think of a map of your local area that is to scale and you made it. This map will contain from your perspective, what is important to you to both include and leave out. Which bits will be highlighted and which less so. Imagine this map that you have made. How like the actual place will it be? The answer is, not very like it probably and another person also making a map of the same place will have one that looks different, possibly very different. You each might not even recognise, that you have created a map of the same place and a visitor using it to find their way around could be very confused!

So we all make meanings of everything we experience in our world. If you apply this to communication, it is easy to see how misunderstandings happen. The meanings we make of what people say and how they say it, especially if we are unfamiliar with them or have made assumptions about them, could be different from the meanings they meant and vice versa.  We can find ourselves in a situation, where we are talking with one or more people and no one is able to ‘hear’ the other(s). Sound familiar?  You can see why misunderstandings and assumptions can make it difficult to reach a shared understanding about anything, to solve problems, resolve conflict or to build relationships.

Seeking to understand (Covey), is the antidote. If you if you think about it in relation to improving relationships with friends, family, colleagues, clients and customers, it becomes a vital part of effective communication.

So how can you seek to understand?

  1. First of all – and this is a big one – we have to understand that we all make assumptions, often unconsciously for a lot of the time. We can assume peoples intentions, motivations, thoughts and moods. Really, it saves a lot of time – we couldn’t spend our lives clarifying everything! Sometimes though, in a conversation that is important and / or has a desired outcome, at home or at work, it is useful to ask ourselves “What am I assuming here?”, “How do I know I’m right?” “Where is the evidence for this assumption?” and “What other explanation could there be?” And…
  2. When you are having a conversation, really listen to the other person …and this means not thinking about what you want to say next (we all do this!), rather, try to focus on what they are saying – be truly curious.
  3. Clarify to make sure you understand” “you said… what did you mean by that?” “Do you mean…?” “I think I heard you say… is that right?”
  4. Ask questions…can you help me understand: “I don’t think I quite get it can you give me a bit more information…?”

When you have sought to understand where someone is coming from, what their map of the world looks like, you will be able to respond in a way that matches the way they think and see things. As a result of your empathetic communicating they will also be more likely to listen to what you have to say. It’s a win/win for everyone.

Covey, S. R. (1989). The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People . 1989, NY: Free Press.

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