Anyone who's picked up and read the classic self-development book, "The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People" by Steven R. Covey, will recognize the habit of ‘seek to understand, to be understood'. This powerful paradigm shifts us away from trying to instantly gratify our needs when communicating with someone to a position where we take the time to listen and truly understand their needs first, before then conveying ours. "We typically seek first to be understood and most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they are listening with the intent to reply" (Covey, 2004).

Some folks might describe ‘seek to understand, to be understood' as active or reflective listening. However, it's much more than that. Stopping yourself from formulating a response when someone is talking is certainly a positive step in improving your connection. Listening with intent, to truly understand someone, their fears, desires, yearnings or disappointment is even more powerful. From a position of understanding, we can connect at an empathic level that forms deep levels of trust and respect. As a result, the other person is more likely to reciprocate and take the time to truly listen and understand our needs.

When there's a breakdown in communication, I often hear many couples express that "he/she just doesn't get me". When this is conveyed, I respectively check in with each partner and have them apply the principle of seeking to understand to be understood. It's not uncommon to have them turn to each other and say, "Oh! I had no idea that was happening to you! Or, I had it completely wrong, I thought you meant X, Y, Z". This common dialogue highlights the real impact when we really don't connect. As a result, the misperceptions that we create, then impact the way in which we subsequently interact with the other person, creating a cycle of miscommunication and potential conflict.

Seeking to understand to be understood, in the context of our relationships can be applied in a few simple and very practical steps:

1.     Create space to have an open, active conversation. Give yourself some breathing space and create a regular time to talk. It doesn't require hours of deep and meaningful conversation, but just make it consistent and uninterrupted so that you and your partner can connect.

2.     Be present and focused. Sure, I know it's hard to have a conversation after battling with the trials of the day. Sit together or talk a walk. Remove as many distractions as possible. Switch off the television, put your phone out of sight, whatever it takes to be present in order to create that empathic connection. 

3.     Be curious about your partner's world. Starting a conversation with a simple check in with your partner is a great way to start an active conversation. You'll be surprised at how many couples have fallen out of the habit of checking in with each other. However, once you start - listen. Listen with the intent of understanding them and their frame of reference. Be curious. It's your responsibility as a partner to understand all about their world and what's happening with them.

4.     Don't prescribe solutions. This is a classic symptom of listening to reply as opposed to listening to understand. If we jump into the conversation with suggestions or recommendations, then the other person is less likely to initiate a conversation or even seek help in future. If they want help they, hopefully, will ask for it. Then with the insight that you have about their needs, are able to offer solutions that are far more meaningful.

5.     Ask how you can complement your partner's life. This is a great alternative to offering solutions (gents, are you paying attention here?). Ask your partner ‘what can I do you make your day great? Or, what can I do to help you through the day?' These might sound a bit cheesy, but find your own language to ask these questions. The reply might be as simple as ‘can you rub my back or I would love if you could help me get the kids off to bed'. The key here is to extend an invitation to your partner to connect with them and offer support while respecting their needs.

The concept of ‘first seek to understand, to be understood' is based deeply in the power of empathic listening. It has the potential to create strong connections while respecting each others frame of reference. When individuals take the time to focus, be present and listen without formulating a response, it opens up the potential to convey needs and expectations without resorting to ineffective ways of communicating (defending positions, arguing, misinterpretation etc).

If you're unfamiliar with some of these ideas, it will take a bit of practice. Construct your own language, using these suggestions as a foundation. Experiment and take notice of what changes. The potential to deepen your connection with your partner is very real.

If you think it's time to explore how to improve communication in your relationship or struggle to express your needs and expectations with your partner or spouse, then call me on 512-470-6976 to start a conversation.

Arohanui, Simon

Image by kanegen on Flickr.

Simon Niblock, MA is an Austin TX based, Marriage and Family Therapy Associate who is dedicated to helping men, couples and families find peace, direction, and meaning in their relationships. Click on the link below to book an appointment.