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drive thru speakerI’ll never forget the day I ordered fries at a drive-thru … and got a Sprite instead. I’m glad technology improved beyond static-filled speakers to screens to verify your order because it’s important to be understood. But, we all have a tendency to make assumptions, jump to conclusions, and rush to fix things based on what we thought we heard.

When working toward Win/Win solutions, it’s important to take the time to really understand the problem first. That’s why Habit #5 in Seven Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen R. Covey is to seek first to understand and then to be understood.

We spend most of our waking hours communicating. Reading the cereal box, road signs, or reports. Writing shopping lists, emails, or notes. Speaking to our kids, our boss, the waitress, or our spouse. Listening to song lyrics, teachers, or family members. But of these four skills, only three were taught in school but the fourth is the key to solid relationships built on a foundation of trust. (Not to mention that truly listening to someone is a huge deposit in their emotional bank account!)

Most of us listen with the intent to reply. I’m either speaking or mentally preparing to speak all while while filtering what others say through my own experiences. It’s like listening through a distorted drive-thru speaker. When I do respond, it’s often to evaluate of the accuracy of what they said, get my questions answered, or pass out advice. Yet, these default modes can cut off communication before it has a chance because I haven’t tried to really understand the other person.

On the other hand, empathic listening seeks to get inside their frame of reference even if I don’t agree with them. More than registering, reflecting, or even understanding the words they use, I try to pick up on body language, feelings, and hidden meanings. This level of listening requires me to use both sides of my brain to understand both the content and feelings of the other person, but the effort to understand their situation, needs, and concerns takes less time than trying to clear up misunderstandings later. Not to mention I get accurate information to work with by getting to the heart of the matter.

In seeking to understand others, I allow them the room to work through their thoughts and feelings on their own … and often the real issue and solutions become clear. And after focusing on the relationship first and satisfying their need to be heard, then I can move on toward the second half of the equation by clearly sharing my own ideas and concerns so we can work together. The first step takes consideration and the second, courage.

But, like the new screens at the drive-thru, effective communication skills result in fries instead of Sprite. And that’s a huge difference!

What about you? Are you a good listener? Do you spend your time crafting your reply or trying to understand the other person? Can you pick up on nonverbal communication?

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