The Anatomy of Listening Effectively

  • By Michele Howe.

    I admit it. I’ve always considered myself a good listener. I was wrong. Not until I read Stephen Covey’s book, The 8th Habit, did I realize how limited my listening skills have been.

    Perhaps my biggest mistake is trying to formulate a response while someone is still talking with me. Instead of giving my full attention to the speaker, I’m guilty of (1) allowing my mind to race ahead trying to solve a problem and (2) busy deciding if I agree (or not) with the one talking. In either scenario, I’m not fully engaged in what’s being said and therefore, I’m not listening effectively (and that has to change).

    According to author Stephen Covey in his newest title, The 8th Habit: From Effectiveness to Greatness, communication is the most important skill in life. Covey writes that people spend about two-thirds of their time reading, writing, speaking or listening. There is one of these areas, however, that takes up between 40 and 50 percent of individuals’ time every day. Can you guess which area?

    It is listening. Covey shares that most people “think” they know how to listen because they do it so much. But the truth is, the majority of us listen solely within our own frame of reference. This author explains that there are five levels of everyday listening beginning at the lowest level include:

    1. Ignoring
    2. Pretend listening (patronizing)
    3. Selective listening
    4. Attentive listening
    5. Empathic listening

    The first four areas in this continuum fall within one’s own frame of reference. Only the last, Empathic listening, does a person actually “transcend your own autobiography…out of your own history and judging tendencies, and get deeply into the frame of reference or viewpoint of another person.”

    Covey underscores that the primary need to feel understood is like the body’s need for air in the lungs. Unless and until a person feels understood (and listened to), you will get no farther in communication with that individual.

    Read on to learn Stephen Covey’s practical insights on how to further develop your ability to listen empathetically (and well).

    • Be sincerely open to what others see and why they see the world as they do.
    • People react to new information based on their previous experiences and personal history.
    • There are always multiple ways to interpret information, keep this in the mental forefront of every conversation.
    • Frequently, communication breaks down because of how people define the words spoken. However, when a spirit of empathy is present, true understanding heightens.

    Michele Howe

    Michele is the author of fourteen books for women and has published over 2000 articles, reviews, and curriculum to more than 100 different publications. Her articles and reviews have been published in Good Housekeeping, First For Women, Single Parent Family, Christian Single, and many other publications. Michele’s single parenting titles include Going It Alone and Still Going It Alone. After having undergone six shoulder surgeries, Michele saw the need for a women’s inspirational health-related book co-authored with her orthopedic surgeon titled, Burdens Do a Body Good: Meeting Life’s Challenges with Strength (and Soul), released in 2010 and from which Prescription for Life, their health, medical and surgical informational book is based. One Size Fits All: Making Healthy Choices, Stepping Into a Meaningful Life, a women's health/inspirational devotional by Lighthouse of the Carolinas was released late 2012 and Faith, Friends, and Other Floatation Devices will be published in 2013 by ACTA Publications. Michele's newest release is Burden Lifters: Every Woman's Daily Guide to a Healthy Happy Life, published by Bondfire Books. Read more of Michele's work at and contact Michele at:

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    1. Pat Brake
      Pat Brake says:

      I, too, struggle to be a good listener. I am thinking about my response many times and don’t give the speaker my undivided attention. I had a roommate in Columbus years ago that was what I consider one of the best listeners ever! She made you feel like you were so important because she listened so carefully. It was great!! I really need to work on this area of my life. Thanks for the good reminder!!

    2. Ellen Naylor
      Ellen Naylor says:

      It’s nice to see that a man so famous as Steve Covey wrote this book solely on communication, since most of us are underperformers, especially in empathetic listening. It is not taught in US schools, so it does not become a habit at a young age when it would be easiest, just like learning a foreign language.

      I think a key to empathetic listening is to forget about yourself, and really focus on the other person, not only what they’re saying, but why they might be saying what they’re saying, their tone, their motivation, and body motion if you’re with them. Shut off that inner voice and ego, and it’s easier to focus on the other person. However, culturally we are not programmed to do this in America. I call this practice cooperative communication…


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