Most working professionals have read Stephen Covey's landmark book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective PeopleIt is considered a cornerstone of the knowledge worker's curriculum. However, most leaders neglect Habit 5:

Seek first to understand, than to be understood.

Sounds simple right?

But its not. Based on personal experience and countless first hand accounts, many leaders fail to embrace empathic listening to develop a genuine understanding of their direct reports.

As Covey describes the challenge:

Communication is the most important skill in life. You spend years learning how to read and write, and years learning how to speak. But what about listening? What training have you had that enables you to listen so you really, deeply understand another human being? Probably none, right? 

As you'll witness in this inner monologue, the inherent hierarchy of the relationship compounds the problem:

As a boss I am expected to assess situations, give advice, make decisions, and coach my direct reports. This is my job as a manager.

Why would a manager actually take the time to listen beyond understanding a problem? They don't because they don't have to. They are paid to assess and decide, not listen and reflect.

It is at this crossroads where the good managers are surpassed by great leaders. Recall that leaders lead people. Managers manage tasks. True leadership is built upon character and emotional intelligence to work through people. Managers direct people through work.

As highly-paid task masters, most managers listen autobiographically and then respond in one of four ways: 

  • Evaluating: You judge and then either agree or disagree.
  • Probing: You ask questions from your own frame of reference.
  • Advising: You give counsel, advice, and solutions to problems.
  • Interpreting: You analyze others' motives and behaviors based on your own experiences.

This tactical, superficial exchange often leaves the individual contributor feeling misunderstood with an overdose of advice, not to mention the risk of terrible advice due to minimal understanding.

Trust is lost.

Since the immature manager lacks the patience or skill needed to truly listen and understand, they often resort to pontificating which makes them feel important. In fact, immature managers are often so eager to conquer situational challenges that emotions and context becomes casualties of war.

Want to buck the trend? In your next 1:1 with your direct report try the following:

  • Put your agenda aside
  • Give them 100% of your attention
  • Try to identify the emotional underpinning of what they're sharing with you
  • Try to identify how they FEEL
  • Rephrase how you think they feel back to them, e.g. "It sounds like you're feeling pretty anxious about this renewal coming up next month."
  • Be comfortable with long pauses
  • Take the time to reflect on what they've shared with you
  • Resist the urge to evaluate and judge.
  • Resist the urge to probe into the tactical details.
  • Resist the urge to give advice.
  • Resist the urge to analyze.

Do nothing except talk about how they're feeling. Admittedly, all of this is quite counter-intuitive amidst a hectic workday, but trust me: if you've done this effectively, they will eventually ask you for your perspective: "How do you think we should handle the renewal?"


Since you've taken the time to listen empathically and develop a genuine understanding of their situation, trust has been earned.

You have just taken the first step from being a good manager towards becoming a great leader.