Seek First to Understand, Then to be Understood

Teacher“Seek First to Understand, Then to be Understood” is one of the 7 Habits Of Highly Effective People by Steven Covey.

I was reminded by it by a story an elementary teacher told me. She had had a difficult day at school and was pouring her heart out to me. Since I’m a professional coach and I know she hates it when (she notices) I coach her, so I made the promise to her to only listen and ask a question now and then to understand.

She started her story.

*Ring ring*
The bell goes off and all children are guided to their class room. It was a cold day and all children hang their coats on the pegs in the hallway. Next, they all enter the class. Except for three.
Three kids were standing in the hallway, looking at the window.
Teacher: “Please come inside.”
The kids are not reacting and keep staring out of the window.
Teacher: “John, Jane, Smith, please come inside now. We’re starting with calculus.”
No reaction.
Teacher: “That’s it! All three of you, come along to the teachers room”.
In the teachers room the students get a penalty and are not allowed to participate the next hour in art class.

Me: “So, you were angry because of the students not following your directions?”
Teacher: “Yes, I was.”
Me: “Why is it that big of a deal?”
Teacher: “They have to come in the class. I want to keep order and don’t lose time for teaching.”
Me: “I understand that you feel this is important. Is it the first time that this happens?”
Teacher: “No, they do it all week and they know as the problem stokers in class. Let me tell you what happened later that week.”

*Ring ring*
Two days later the same story unravels.
Our three problem stokers are looking at the window again when the rest of the kids are entering their class room.
This time, Jane says: “He look at that: they moved the big world map to the other side of the hallway.”

Me: “Wait. What does the world map has to do with this?”
Teacher: “They were watching at the map all the time, instead of entering the class room in time.”
Me: “But why are they so interested in this world map?”
Teacher: “I don’t know and I don’t care: I just want to start calculus.”
Me: “I understand that starting calculus in time is important to you. On the other hand, it looks to me that they were genuinely interested in the world map. Could it be an opportunity to give a demo in class?”
Teacher: “I never thought of that. It could be interesting for the rest too”.
Me: “It could be added value for the rest of the class, but also for the relationship you have with our three little problem stokers. As you show interest in their interests”.
Teacher: “Great idea, I will give it a try next week.”


When I heard the first version of the story, it was easier to me to give advice.

Have you tried this?
Why don’t you try this?
What are other options?
Is punishment necessary?

But in this way I would have started coaching without understanding the problem completely. We would have dived into finding solutions, instead of getting the problem right at first.

When I explicitly promised to step out of my role of coach in this case, I was not focused on asking the right questions, I was not focused in thinking along with the coachee and I was not focused to find solutions for her case (and guide her to it).

My only focus was to listen and try to understand. This made it possible to really empathize with here and make a connection.

Double lesson

I’m not sure if you noticed, but there was a lesson here for the teacher too. The same fifth principles of Steven Covey, Seek First to Understand Then to be Understood, is valid for the teacher too as she could have responded in another, more successful way to the situation.

Empathic listening

The theory (see Additional Reading) describes are four levels to true empathic listening:

  1. Repeat what the other person is saying.
  2. Rephrase the content.
  3. Reflect the feelings and emotions.
  4. Rephrase the content and reflect the feelings.

With using these steps you can build report with your coachee and establish a connection.

In the story above I didn’t use the four levels in a strict way, but I tried to rephrase and confirm emotions when appropriate.

Additional reading

The Fifth Habit in 20 slides –

The Fith Habit by Steven Covey –

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One thought on “Seek First to Understand, Then to be Understood

  1. […] Seek First to Understand, Then to be Understood […]

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