Habit 5: Seek First to Understand, Then to Be Understood

This week at Almond Acres, we are studying Habit 5: Seek First to Understand, Then be Understood. Seeking to understand often requires the skill of listening. Whether as a student, an employee or in a relationship, the skill of listening is essential to learning and knowing a subject or a person deeply.

An Almond Acres Charter Academy student listens intently to another student at the same desk. She is making eye contact and has her body facing the speaker. There are 4 students in red uniform shirts sitting together at a table.

Habit 5 teaches us that good communication begins with empathetic listening. Empathic listening is listening with the sole intent to understand another person within his or her frame of reference. It requires both intent and skill. The key is to truly, honestly desire to understand the other person. We can probably all relate to not being listened to at some point in our lives. It feels terrible–this is the first step to empathy!

Our ego commonly gets in the way of being a good listener. Instead of listening, we make sure that people understand our own point of view first, or only listen autobiographically. When we listen autobiographically, we filter what others say through our own story, experiences, prejudices, biases, and values. We probe by asking questions from our own frame of reference or agenda. We evaluate by agreeing or disagreeing. We advise by giving counsel, advice, and solutions to problems. We interpret by trying to figure out or analyze the other person. In short, we are putting ourselves first.

The productive and positive influence is to truly understand another’s point of view first. This practice expresses respect, mutual understanding, empathy, and courage. Great relationships, whether at home, school, or work are built on mutual respect. Loving and respecting others is an act of good listening because we tend to find better solutions to challenges in life when we consider the ideas from both sides to create the best idea. 

When it comes to learning, listening is obviously a must! Students who practice good listening skills become great thinkers. They can’t understand academic skills if they are distracted and not following a lesson. Moreover, asking questions and getting clarification develops greater understanding and makes meaningful connections between subjects and skills.

We believe teaching listening skills is as essential as reading and writing skills. We use a simple 3-step framework to illuminate this practice for all of our K-8 students: 

  1. Practice empathetic listening by asking clarifying questions and not judging the situation as you first see it. Some examples include: 
  • Can you tell me what happened?
  • How do you feel about _____?
  • What do you think led to this situation?
  • You sound really _______. 
  • What do you think is the next right thing to do?
  1. When emotions are high, stand your peaceful ground and don’t jump into the excitement. This will help the other person to connect to their thinking brain because they see you modeling it. 
  1. Respectfully seek to be understood. Once the other person recognizes that you are there to understand and want to help, it’s time to add your input. 
  • “I feel _______ about ________.”
  • “You could be right, however, ________.”
  • “Thank you for sharing your thoughts and feelings with me. Would you like my opinion?”
  • “That sounds interesting. What do you think about ________?”

Empathetic listening says to the person that you care about who they are, what they are feeling, and are open to helping them. It is a simple skill with a profound impact that we can all practice in our day-to-day lives. 

About AACA

Almond Acres Charter Academy is a public, tuition-free K-8 school that employs credentialed teachers and administers state-mandated testing to provide families in northern SLO County an additional choice in public education. Located in Paso Robles in a newly built, state-of-the-art facility, AACA is open to all students from all communities. AACA’s mission is to help students succeed academically and socially by educating the whole child: heart, mind, body and soul. We grow great kids!

Seek First to Understand, Then be Understood

Seeking understanding about someone’s thoughts or feelings, and for that matter – our own, gives clarity to a situation. If you ask any expert in fields related to personal or professional relationships, they will tell you that the key to success is communication. Though this is the key, we too often fail to communicate well.

Many people believe that they just need to blast their opinion about a matter with no regard to their audience. Habit #5 teaches us that good communication begins with listening to the story of the other person and then responding with our opinion. The common practice is to make sure that people understand my point of view. The productive and positive influence is to truly understand their point of view first. This practice expresses respect, mutual understanding, empathy, and courage. Great relationships, be at home, school, or work is built on mutual respect. When my wife and I married, a dear friend told us that marriage is never a 50:50 proposition. He said that there are plenty of times that it is going to be a 90:10 or a 10:90 situation. Loving and respecting others is an act of good listening because we tend to find better solutions to challenges in life when we consider the ideas from both sides to create the best idea. Balance creates best!

When it comes to learning, listening is obviously a must!  Students who practice good listening skills become great thinkers. They can’t understand academic skills if they are distracted and not following a lesson. Moreover, asking questions and getting clarification develops greater understanding and makes meaningful connections between subjects and skills.

Effective Practices:

  1. Practice empathetic listening by asking clarifying questions and not judging the situation as you first see it.
    • When emotions are high stand your peaceful ground and don’t jump into the excitement. This will help the other person to connect to their thinking brain because they see you modeling it. 
      • Can you tell me what happened?
      • How do you feel about _____?
      • What do you think led to this situation?
      • You sound really _______. 
      • What do you think is the next right thing to do?
  2. Respectfully seek to be understood.
    • Once the other person recognizes that you are there to understand and want to help, its time to add your input. 
      • “I feel _______ about ________.”
      • “You could be right, however, ________.”
      • “Thank you for sharing your thoughts and feelings with me. Would you like my opinion?”
      • “That sounds interesting. What do you think about ________?”

Personally and professionally I have learned that nine out of ten times a person who is unreasonable, belligerent, or accusatory are experiencing some type of woundedness from the past or present. Empathetic listening says to the person that you care about who they are, what they are feeling, and are open to helping them. Stephen Covey said it best when he uttered the words,

“Next to physical survival, the greatest need of a human being is psychological survival – to be understood, to be affirmed, to be validated, to be appreciated.”



Learning Links

Seek First to Understand, Then Be Understood

“The deepest need of the human heart is to be understood.”- Sean Covey

This week we are studying Habit 5: Seek First to Understand, Then be Understood.  Specifically, we are practicing the skill of empathic listening. Think about a time when someone didn’t listen to you. How did it feel?  Often without realizing it, we listen autobiographically, which is filtering what others say through your own story, experiences, prejudices, biases, and values. We probe by asking questions from our own frame of reference or agenda. We evaluate by agreeing or disagreeing. We advise by giving counsel, advice, and solutions to problems. We interpret by trying to figure out or analyze the other person.

The Leader In Me teaches us to listen empathically. Empathic listening is listening with the sole intent to understand another person within his or her frame of reference. It requires both intent and skill. The key is to truly, honestly desire to understand the other person. If you have the right attitude but not the skill, you will be fine. But it doesn’t work the other way around. Here are a few ways that could sound:


“You feel ___________ about __________.”
“It sounds like you feel…”
“So what you’re saying is…”

When to Listen Empathically: Watch the Signals

Stop talking and listen empathically when:

  • Emotions are high. 
  • You must get to the heart of an issue.
  • You feel that you don’t understand. 
  • The other person doesn’t feel understood. 

Slow down.

  • Watch and be ready to listen empathically.

Go forward and seek to be understood when:

  • The issue is clear and mutually understood.
  • The conversation is casual and unemotional.
  • You’re asked to give counsel or advice.



Learning Links

Seek First to Understand, Then Be Understood

We have two ears and one mouth for good reason. Listening intently is sometimes difficult because we tend to have our own thoughts and advice that we want to impart – especially as a parent. Affirming the ideas and feelings of our children is a powerful step toward teaching our children. When children believe that we care and are willing to listen they are more open to guidance and direction. Listening allows us a little more time to think more wisely about the wisdom we are about to impart. 🙂 An effective strategy to practicing this habit is to ask questions instead of imposing answers. By asking questions we gather more understanding and our children have greater faith in our desire to truly understand their point of view.  Ninety-five percent of what we say comes from the nonverbal messages sent by our expressions, tone, and posture. Re-posturing our bodies and expressing empathy can immediately cause brains to respond more clearly and minimize an unhealthy reaction. Responding to the thoughts of others is much more productive than it is to react to them. Here are a few ways to practice this habit this week:

  • Heart – gently consider a child’s perspective.
  • Mind – intentionally ask three questions before responding.
  • Body – lower your posture and eye contact to or below a child’s eye level when you are listening to their thoughts and feelings.
  • Soul – with empathy and compassion ask why..?

“It is the province of knowledge to speak. And it is the privilege of wisdom to listen.” – Oliver Wendell Holmes

“Somewhere we know that without silence words lose their meaning, that without listening speaking no longer heals, that without distance closeness cannot cure.” – Henri Nouwen

“Children have never been very good at listening to their elders, but they have never failed to imitate them.” – James A. Baldwin


Discipline: To Teach and to Learn
Relate & Redirect – Our goal as parents and educators is to teach so that our children will deeply learn. The first step to teaching is to relate to the disposition of the learner. This takes questioning so that we can understand why and how a child made the decision he/she made. Once we can relate to the situation it is then productive to redirect the behavior. Trying to do this in the opposite order tends to backfire. When a child (or an adult) is upset, frustrated, or confused – redirecting them first may just cause further trouble. Using the phrase, “help me to understand” can allow a child to name to the problem and begin a thoughtful resolution to tame the behavior. Dr. Daniel Siegel uses the phrase “Name it to Tame it” to describe the neurological process that will make our kids smarter in times of trouble.

Learning Links

Problem Solving 101

One thing is certain in our future: we will always face problems. While not always easy, we do have options when we face a problem: give in or find a solution. At Almond Acres, we obviously believe that finding a solution is the best way to approach a problem. We know that successfully overcoming struggles and obstacles is what sets highly effective people apart from the crowd.

Three students in red and blue Almond Acres polo uniform shirts work together to solve a STEM challenge involving marshmallows, popsicle sticks and plastic spoons. They are sitting at a group of desks.

At Almond Acres, we teach students how to flexibly approach problems from an early age, whether it be a tiff between friends on the playground or a challenge of litter on our campus. Problem solving requires critical thinking, planning, reflection and taking action, all essential 21st century skills that, when cultivated from an early age, can have far-reaching positive effects in all aspects of our lives. 

Mr. Bourgault, our Founding Executive Director (Retired), created a simple 5 step model for solving problems with both peace and patience that we use with students from Kindergarten to 8th grade. The model asks us to scale out our perspective by looking at the big picture and is highly integrative with our study of the Habits of Mind. It encourages us to think win-win, seek first to understand and synergize

Here’s Mr. B’s 5 Step System that we affectionately call PGOSE It! 

Step 1. Problem

What is the problem? Describe clearly and specifically what the problem is. 

Step 2. Goal

What do you wish would be or happen? Begin with the End in Mind!

Step 3. Obstacles

What is getting in the way of achieving the goal? Be specific about the feelings, actions, and ideas that are interfering with reaching the goal. Make a list!

Step 4. Strategies

What might you do to get around the obstacles that would result in achieving your goal? Identify 2-3 specific things you can do to eliminate or maneuver around the obstacles. 

Step 5. Evaluate

When should we check back in to see if our strategies worked? Do this soon after the strategies are practiced. 

When we take the time to go through these steps, we are using our minds and hearts in a nimble and creative way–just as they were intended to be used! It takes a bit of stretching, and a bit of practice, but the model truly makes seeking a win-win solution possible.

Three Almond Acres charter students sit on the floor together and work on a STEM challenge involving marshmallows and popsicle sticks. They are wearing Almond Acres uniforms.

Practicing this model also gives us a chance to reframe struggle into a positive opportunity for growth. It’s another chance for our students to model just how TeRRiFiC (Trustworthy, Respectful, Responsible, Fair and Caring) they are! 

We can’t anticipate the struggles and obstacles of the future, nor can we pave a smooth path to success for our kids, but we can teach the skills that will prepare children to address the problems of tomorrow head on. It’s just another way we Grow Great Kids.

About AACA

Almond Acres Charter Academy is a public, tuition-free K-8 school that employs credentialed teachers and administers state-mandated testing to provide families in northern SLO County an additional choice in public education. Located in Paso Robles in a newly built, state-of-the-art facility, AACA is open to all students from all communities. AACA’s mission is to help students succeed academically and socially by educating the whole child: heart, mind, body and soul. We grow great kids!