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Communication is the most
important skill in life. We spend most of our waking hours communicating. But
consider this: You’ve spent years learning how to read and write. Years
learning how to speak. But what about listening? What training or education have
you had that enables you to listen so that you really, deeply understand
another human being from that individual’s own frame of reference?


Seek First to Understand, or
Diagnose before You Prescribe, is a correct principle manifest in many areas of
life. A wise doctor will diagnose before writing a prescription. A good
engineer will understand the forces, the stresses at work, before designing the
bridge. An effective salesperson first seeks to understand the needs of the
customer before offering a product. Similarly, an effective communicator will
first seek to understand another’s views before seeking to be understood. Until
people feel properly diagnosed they will not be open to prescriptions.
We typically seek first to be
understood. Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they
listen with the intent to reply. They’re either speaking or preparing to speak.
They’re filtering everything through their own paradigms, reading their
autobiography into other people’s lives, listening within their own frame of
“Oh, I know exactly how you feel.”
“I went through the very same thing. Let me
tell you about my experience.”
They’re constantly projecting
their own home movies onto others’ behavior. In contrast, Empathic Listening
gets inside another person’s frame of reference. You look out through it, you
see the world the way he or she sees it, you understand how he or she feels.
This does not mean that you agree necessarily, simply that you understand his
or her point of view.
Empathic Listening is, in and of
itself, a tremendous deposit into the Emotional Bank Account of another. Next
to physical survival, the greatest need of a human being is psychological
survival, to be affirmed, to be appreciated, to be understood. When you listen
with empathy to another person, you give that person psychological air.
Empathic Listening is also
risky. It takes a great deal of security to go into a deep listening experience
because you open yourself up to be influenced. You become vulnerable. It’s a
paradox, in a sense, because in order to have influence, you have to first be
influenced. You have to really understand.

Once we understand, we can
proceed with the second step of the interaction: seeking to be understood.
Because the other person’s need to be understood has been satisfied, we are
much more likely to have influence and to be understood ourselves. 
By Zaine Ridling, Ph.D.

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